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Extent of India’s COVID Nudge Campaign Revealed

India flag face mask. Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay
source: www.cam.ac.uk

 

The Government of India’s use of nudge theory in the first three months of the pandemic helped to tackle the virus on numerous fronts, a new study suggests.

 

The government urgently needed to buy time and … bring a deeply divided population together to fight a common struggle

Ronita Bardhan

India has reported nearly five million COVID-19 cases and well over 80,000 deaths (as of 17 September 2020), making the country one of the worst hit in the world. But an even greater tragedy may have unfolded had India’s government not used nudge theory to maintain one of the world’s strictest and longest lockdowns in the first quarter of the year. This is the view of a new study by Ramit Debnath and Dr Ronita Bardhan from Cambridge’s Behaviour and Building Performance Group, Department of Architecture.

Using machine learning and AI-based algorithms to analyse almost 400 government press releases, they show how India nudged across 14 key policy areas to influence the behaviour of 1.3 billion people, including government employees, scientists, health professionals, manufacturers, food suppliers and students to help fight COVID-19. The researchers argue that nudges from India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, were particularly important in creating herd effect on lockdown and social distancing norms across the nation.

The study, published in PLoS ONE, found that the government deployed nudge techniques to tackle a wide range of urgent challenges between 15 January and 14 April 2020. Nudging is a design-based public policy approach which uses positive and negative reinforcements to modify the behaviour of a population.

In January and February, policy nudges were focused on evaluating the risk of incoming travellers from China and extending surveillance at international airports. But the narrative soon shifted to address other pressing concerns. By March, nudges sought to impose new restrictions on travel, discouraging people from visiting crowded and public spaces, and strict social distancing. On 24 March, Modi told the nation that “21 days is critical to breaking the infection cycle… or else the country and your family could be set back 21 years”. The next day, the country entered phase 1 of lockdown.

The government nudged to tackle fake news about the virus and to convince the population to strictly adhere to the rules, use masks and wash hand frequently. At the same time, it conducted surveillance in urban areas using smart technologies that included drones, spatial analysis, low-power Bluetooth mobile phone applications and humanoid robots.

Ramit Debnath said: “Nudge-based policy approaches are crucial in a democratic country like India which has a vast population and geo-spatial divide, high levels of illiteracy and an extremely vulnerable health system.”

Ronita Bardhan added: “The government urgently needed to buy time and it had to bring a deeply divided population together to fight a common struggle – this was a huge challenge. Our findings show that the government needed much more than scientific data to convince people, they appealed to powerful values including patriotism, family, religion and community.”

The study highlights the role played by the ‘Prime Minister’s Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations Fund’ (PM CARES Fund) which was created to nudge the public to make micro-donations and encourage public participation to help tackle the crisis. On 5 April, the Prime Minister nudged people to voluntarily switch off their lights for ten minutes in solidarity with frontline workers. Most of these nudges were made with social media advertisements, SMS forwards and broadcast media.

The study found that government ministries nudged India’s manufacturing firms to produce PPE, hand sanitiser and masks to meet the national demand, while also seeking to protect the country’s food security and supply chains at a critical time – India’s farmers harvest their winter crops from February to April.

Meanwhile, the government spurred on India’s scientific community to fight the pandemic, releasing funding through the Department of Science and Technology. Research institutions were encouraged to submit proposals to focus on the development of affordable diagnostics, vaccines, antivirals, disease models, and other R&D to study COVID-19.

Scientific innovation during this period included robots for encouraging social distancing in public spaces and healthcare centres; and a contact tracing app (AarogyaSetu) using GPS and Bluetooth. Frequent SMS reminders were used to nudge people to use the app. The Ministry of Human Resource Development also nudged the start-up and innovation community in India to participate in the fight for COVID-19 by launching programs like ‘Fight Corona IDEAthon’.

To support education, the government encouraged home-schooling by aggressively advertising the use of the National Digital Library of India. The government even harnessed nostalgia to help keep people at home during lockdown by broadcasting popular ‘80s and ‘90s TV shows on the national channel, Doordarshan.

The study demonstrates how nudge strategies evolved as the crisis unfolded. Between January and the first week of March, for instance, one government ministry (AYUSH) was aggressively nudging people to follow the traditional medicinal practice of Ayurveda and to maintain good health through yoga to increase immunity, while also insisting on disciplined personal hygiene. However, in mid-March, as infection rates increased, the nudges shifted away from traditional treatments to promoting a healthy lifestyle using hashtags like #YOGAathome.

The researchers used topic modelling, a computational social science method that has its basis in text mining and natural language processing. It automatically analyses text data to determine cluster words for a set of documents.

The Government started lifting lockdown restrictions on 7 June 2020, and the spread of the virus has since accelerated. But the benefits of the government’s nudge campaign are still being felt, the researchers believe. Ronita Bardhan says: “Behaviour changes encouraged by nudges earlier in the year, including the wearing of masks and social distancing, are still widely maintained across India. These nudges are still helping to save lives.”

The study does not attempt to assess the success or failure of the Government of India’s policy interventions, rather to understand how context-specific latent nudges were created through policy interventions.

 

Ramit Debnath is a Gates Cambridge Scholar at Churchill College; Dr Ronita Bardhan is University Lecturer of Sustainability in the Built Environment and a Fellow at Selwyn College.

 

Reference

R. Debnath R & R. Bardhan, ‘India nudges to contain COVID-19 pandemic: A reactive public policy analysis using machine-learning based topic modelling’, PLoS ONE (2020). DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0238972. 


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The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Images, including our videos, are Copyright ©University of Cambridge and licensors/contributors as identified.  All rights reserved. We make our image and video content available in a number of ways – as here, on our main website under its Terms and conditions, and on a range of channels including social media that permit your use and sharing of our content under their respective Terms.

World’s Largest-Ever DNA Sequencing of Viking Skeletons Reveals They Weren’t All Scandinavian

A mass grave of around 50 headless Vikings from a site in Dorset, UK. Some of these remains were used for DNA analysis.
source: www.cam.ac.uk

 

Invaders, pirates, warriors – the history books taught us that Vikings were brutal predators who travelled by sea from Scandinavia to pillage and raid their way across Europe and beyond.

 

The results change the perception of who a Viking actually was. The history books will need to be updated

Eske Willerslev

Now cutting-edge DNA sequencing of more than 400 Viking skeletons from archaeological sites scattered across Europe and Greenland will rewrite the history books as it has shown:

  • Skeletons from famous Viking burial sites in Scotland were actually local people who could have taken on Viking identities and were buried as Vikings.
  • Many Vikings actually had brown hair not blonde hair.
  • Viking identity was not limited to people with Scandinavian genetic ancestry. The study shows the genetic history of Scandinavia was influenced by foreign genes from Asia and Southern Europe before the Viking Age.
  • Early Viking Age raiding parties were an activity for locals and included close family members.
  • The genetic legacy in the UK has left the population with up to six per cent Viking DNA.

Results of the six-year research project, published in the journal Nature, debunk the modern image of Vikings and was led by Professor Eske Willerslev, a Fellow of St John’s College, University of Cambridge, and director of The Lundbeck Foundation GeoGenetics Centre, University of Copenhagen.

“We have this image of well-connected Vikings mixing with each other, trading and going on raiding parties to fight Kings across Europe because this is what we see on television and read in books – but genetically we have shown for the first time that it wasn’t that kind of world,” said Willerslev, who is also affiliated with Cambridge’s Department of Zoology. “This study changes the perception of who a Viking actually was – no one could have predicted these significant gene flows into Scandinavia from Southern Europe and Asia happened before and during the Viking Age.”

The word Viking comes from the Scandinavian term ‘vikingr’ meaning ‘pirate’. The Viking Age generally refers to the period from AD800, a few years after the earliest recorded raid, until the 1050s, a few years before the Norman Conquest of England in 1066.

The Vikings changed the political and genetic course of Europe and beyond: Cnut the Great became the King of England, Leif Eriksson is believed to have been the first European to reach North America – 500 years before Christopher Columbus – and Olaf Tryggvason is credited with taking Christianity to Norway. Many expeditions involved raiding monasteries and cities along the coastal settlements of Europe, but the goal of trading goods like fur, tusks and seal fat was often the more pragmatic aim.

“We didn’t know genetically what they actually looked like until now,” said Willerslev. “We found genetic differences between different Viking populations within Scandinavia which shows Viking groups in the region were far more isolated than previously believed. Our research even debunks the modern image of Vikings with blonde hair as many had brown hair and were influenced by genetic influx from the outside of Scandinavia.”

The international team sequenced the whole genomes of 442 mostly Viking Age men, women, children and babies from their teeth and petrous bones found in Viking cemeteries. They analysed the DNA from the remains from a boat burial in Estonia and discovered four Viking brothers died the same day. The scientists have also revealed male skeletons from a Viking burial site in Orkney, Scotland, were not actually genetically Vikings despite being buried with swords and other Viking memorabilia.

There wasn’t a word for Scandinavia during the Viking Age – that came later. But the study shows that the Vikings from what is now Norway travelled to Ireland, Scotland, Iceland and Greenland. The Vikings from what is now Denmark travelled to England. And Vikings from what is now Sweden went to the Baltic countries on their all-male ‘raiding parties’.

“We carried out the largest ever DNA analysis of Viking remains to explore how they fit into the genetic picture of Ancient Europeans before the Viking Age,” said co-first author Dr Ashot Margaryan from the University of Copenhagen. “The results were startling and some answer long-standing historical questions and confirm previous assumptions that lacked evidence.

“We determined that a Viking raiding party expedition included close family members as we discovered four brothers in one boat burial in Estonia who died the same day. The rest of the occupants of the boat were genetically similar suggesting that they all likely came from a small town or village somewhere in Sweden.”

DNA from the Viking remains were shotgun sequenced from sites in Greenland, Ukraine, the United Kingdom, Scandinavia, Poland and Russia.

“We found that Vikings weren’t just Scandinavians in their genetic ancestry, as we analysed genetic influences in their DNA from Southern Europe and Asia which has never been contemplated before,” said co-first author Professor Martin Sikora form the University of Copenhagen. “Many Vikings have high levels of non-Scandinavian ancestry, both within and outside Scandinavia, which suggest ongoing gene flow across Europe.”

The team’s analysis also found that genetically Pictish people ‘became’ Vikings without genetically mixing with Scandinavians. The Picts were Celtic-speaking people who lived in what is today eastern and northern Scotland during the Late British Iron Age and Early Medieval periods.

“Individuals with two genetically British parents who had Viking burials were found in Orkney and Norway,” said co-first author Dr Daniel Lawson from the University of Bristol. “This is a different side of the cultural relationship from Viking raiding and pillaging.”

The Viking Age altered the political, cultural and demographic map of Europe in ways that are still evident today in place names, surnames and modern genetics.

“Scandinavian diasporas established trade and settlement stretching from the American continent to the Asian steppe,” said co-author Professor Søren Sindbæk from Moesgaard Museum in Denmark. “They exported ideas, technologies, language, beliefs and practices and developed new socio-political structures. Importantly our results show that ‘Viking’ identity was not limited to people with Scandinavian genetic ancestry. Two Orkney skeletons who were buried with Viking swords in Viking style graves are genetically similar to present-day Irish and Scottish people and could be the earliest Pictish genomes ever studied.”

“This is the first time we can take a detailed look at the evolution of variants under natural selection in the last 2,000 years of European history,” said co-first author Professor Fernando Racimo from the University of Copenhagen. “The Viking genomes allow us to disentangle how selection unfolded before, during and after the Viking movements across Europe, affecting genes associated with important traits like immunity, pigmentation and metabolism. We can also begin to infer the physical appearance of ancient Vikings and compare them to Scandinavians today.”

The genetic legacy of the Viking Age lives on today with six per cent of people of the UK population predicted to have Viking DNA in their genes compared to 10 per cent in Sweden.

“The results change the perception of who a Viking actually was. The history books will need to be updated,” said Willerslev.

Reference:
Ashot Margaryan et al. ‘Population genomics of the Viking world.’ Nature (2020). DOI: 10.1038/s41586-020-2688-8

Adapted from a St John’s College press release.


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The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Images, including our videos, are Copyright ©University of Cambridge and licensors/contributors as identified.  All rights reserved. We make our image and video content available in a number of ways – as here, on our main website under its Terms and conditions, and on a range of channels including social media that permit your use and sharing of our content under their respective Terms.

Syrian Refugee Health Workers Can Help Europe Cope With COVID-19

source: www.cam.ac.uk

 

Employing displaced Syrian healthcare workers is a ‘win-win’ for both host communities and refugees as it would strengthen national health services and allow highly-skilled medics to “get on with their lives, rather than just get by”, according to a network of UK academics.

 

We think the integration of refugee doctors should be a political priority in countries such as the UK. Health services in the UK and across Europe needs these people

Adam Coutts

The researchers argue that investing in the training of refugee doctors is a very effective way to help fill gaps in care provision left exposed by the COVID-19 crisis – taking far less time and money than it does to train a doctor from scratch.

By converting already-skilled people to medical work in the areas where they now live – often regions of European countries in short supply of doctors, nurses, dentists, and so on – it will help move the refugees out of poverty while bolstering the local health services of their adopted homes.

A new short film made by Cambridge’s Centre for the Study of Global Human Movement and the Syria Public Health Network (SPHN) follows three refugees in the UK, Germany and Turkey as they set about retraining while discussing their lives new and old, and experiences of escaping war-torn Syria.

The film was produced by Dr Adam Coutts from Cambridge’s Department of Sociology, a cofounder of SPHN, which aims to address policy challenges arising in the humanitarian health response. SPHN provides advocacy, policy briefs and evidence reviews to donors, NGOs and UN agencies.

“Syrian healthcare workers, as with many other displaced professionals, are a well-educated and highly skilled workforce. Their experiences have important policy, economic, humanitarian and academic implications,” said Coutts.

“Thousands of qualified health professionals in Syria have left the country since 2011 due to military attacks on clinics and hospitals. These essential workers now find themselves excluded from formal job opportunities and sliding into poverty in host communities in the Middle East and Europe.”

“They have already been through enough trauma in escaping a war zone. In the policy to build, build, build it is a great waste to not use their skills!” Coutts said.

One of the refugee medics featured in the film, Ba’raa Krebeh, who fled Homs, Syria in 2019, but now lives in Grimsby, UK. “After I got my status I started to look for any opportunity or organisation that could help refugee doctors,” said Krebeh.

He has been assisted by the Lincolnshire Refugee Doctor Project, who helped the 29-year-old medic with housing and support for courses and exams. Krebeh is now working to pass his English test, which he hopes to do in the next couple of months, then will aim to take medical exams and get a hospital placement.

When asked about his future, Krebeh said: “I think I will be here, practising in a hospital in Grimsby.” He hopes to be working as a surgeon in five years’ time.

“Much more investment and policy attention needs to be given for services such as the Lincolnshire NGO that support refugee doctors and speed up the process of recertification and recruitment,” said Dr Aula Abbara a consultant in infectious diseases at Imperial College NHS Healthcare Trust who also co-chairs the Syria Public Health Network.

“These doctors are usually among the top academic achievers in their cohorts. They may be able to work in specialties where we have shortage in the UK. It’s the same in countries like Germany, where there is a shortfall of thousands of doctors and nurses at present – one expected to become even greater as the population ages,” said Abbara.

“It really is in our interest that we support refugee doctors to enter our workforce. In the aftermath of the Covid-19 crisis we are in desperate need of their knowledge and skills.”

Coutts points out that the ongoing exodus of highly skilled workers from Syria, Iraq and North Africa – characteristic of protracted crises in middle-income, largely urban settings – affects the ability of aid organisations and governments to deliver humanitarian assistance.

“Available evidence on post-conflict reconstruction shows that rebuilding the health workforce is one of the top priorities,” said Coutts. “Employing refugee health workers can help to provide a foundation for the rebuilding of a destroyed health system’.

The World Health Organisation estimates a shortfall of 18 million health workers to accelerate universal health coverage by 2030, particularly in low to middle income countries.

Coutts and colleagues argue that displaced healthcare professionals present major opportunities for host communities in the Middle East and the economies of Europe, by strengthening health and welfare systems in the Middle East, Europe and the UK.

Added Coutts: “Our film shows success stories, but these are few. With more support like the Lincolnshire programme many others could return to their vocations quickly and effectively. We think the integration of refugee doctors should be a political priority in countries such as the UK. Health services in the UK and across Europe needs these people.”


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The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Images, including our videos, are Copyright ©University of Cambridge and licensors/contributors as identified.  All rights reserved. We make our image and video content available in a number of ways – as here, on our main website under its Terms and conditions, and on a range of channels including social media that permit your use and sharing of our content under their respective Terms.

Cannabis Farms Are a Modern Slavery ‘Blind Spot’ For UK Police, Study Suggests

A cannabis setup inside a residential premises in the West Midlands. Image: West Midlands Police.
source; www.cam.ac.uk

 

Migrants arrested for tending plants in the flats, houses and attics where cannabis is grown in bulk are often victims of trafficking and ‘debt bondage’ – yet many are not recognised as such by police, according to a new study.

 

Big questions remain about how the criminal justice system should ethically manage modern slavery victims who are also illegal immigrants involved in illegal activity

Heather Strang

Research from Cambridge criminologists suggests that those charged with drug cultivation have often been forced into illegal work as a condition of debt to criminal gangs for smuggling them into the UK.

The researchers, including a Detective Inspector who completed a Masters at Cambridge’s Institute of Criminology, argue that police take too narrow a view of modern slavery when it comes to ‘growers’ arrested during cannabis farm raids.

While growers – often Vietnamese nationals – are not always imprisoned within farms, many work under threat of extreme violence towards themselves or family back home, with little in the way of language or contacts in the UK.

The researchers say that arresting officers often lack detailed training on modern slavery, and make only ‘perfunctory’ enquiries: a brief question that places the onus on a victim who doesn’t understand their own situation.

As such, migrants end up serving years in UK prisons despite being forced to commit the cultivation crimes by gangs who seize passports and threaten – and administer – violence.

“The abuses of freedom in cannabis farm cases do not tally with traditional perceptions of slavery. Victims may be held against their will, forced to work and unable to leave, despite an unlocked door,” said Prof Heather Strang, the study’s senior author.

“Big questions remain about how the criminal justice system should ethically manage modern slavery victims who are also illegal immigrants involved in illegal activity,” she said.

The new study, published in the Cambridge Journal of Evidence-Based Policing, was co-authored by DI Adam Ramiz of Surrey Police as part of his research at Cambridge, where he worked with Strang and Prof Paul Rock from LSE.

Cannabis farms are unassuming abodes in towns and city suburbs that house hundreds of plants in blacked-out rooms, grown with equipment such specialist lighting. A live-in ‘grower’ will work for criminal gangs to feed and protect the Class B drug crop.

The latest study is small in scale – gaining access to growers willing to talk is difficult – but criminologists say that it’s an important addition to this under-researched area.

The team looked at criminal histories of 19 Vietnamese nationals arrested in connection with cannabis farming in Surrey and Sussex between 2014-2017, and conducted in-depth interviews with three further growers – two Vietnamese and an Albanian – as well as the arresting officers in those cases.

The growers all described being in hock to human smugglers, working in farms to pay debts, and some spoke of death threats and physical intimidation. Two spoke of dangerous journeys to the UK via lorries, similar to the 39 Vietnamese nationals found dead in Essex last year.

One witnessed murder by smugglers while trekking for days through forests. Another was locked inside the house once in the UK. The victims didn’t consider themselves such, as they had wanted to come here, yet had been forced into illegal labour on arrival: smuggling that becomes trafficking.

Interviews with officers revealed police questioning on slavery to be limited, cursory and ‘binary’ – whether or not the grower was physically locked in – and conducted with a presumption of guilt on the that the grower is an offender.

“We found that some officers only had an hour of modern slavery training, and felt that the onus is on trafficking victims to volunteer that information, rather than police to investigate further,” said Ramiz, who led the study.

“The brief question or two on slavery will often come after a grower has been given the standard legal advice to say nothing and later to plead guilty,” he said.

Police frustrations focus on growers, with one officer talking of “hitting a brick wall” if they won’t open up, but researchers say that the legal advice offered to trafficked cannabis growers is routine and uncritical: “go quietly”.

They argue that police should ‘re-frame’ their response to cannabis farms so that the possibility of modern slavery is “more fully considered”, and suggest detailed training for front-line officers along with greater willingness to refer cases to specialist investigators.

Dame Sara Thornton, the UK’s Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, described the study as a “welcome contribution to building an evidence-based approach to preventing modern slavery”.

“The Modern Slavery Act includes a statutory defence for those compelled to commit an offence as a direct result of their being a victim of modern slavery. It is essential that the police investigate all lines of enquiry when they come across these complicated cases,” said Thornton.

Added Ramiz: “While much more research is needed, these accounts of debt bondage and fierce intimidation suggests the mass cultivation of cannabis is rife with modern slavery, and the grey area between offender and victim in these cases can become a blind spot for UK police.”

Case study:

A 34-year-old Vietnamese man now in an English prison for growing cannabis told researchers he had been a taxi driver, before fleeing his home after taking part in protests against a Chinese oil rig in the disputed South China sea.

Accused of betraying his country by police, he entered into contract with a smuggler after fearing for his life when a friend disappeared following arrest. Unable to pay in full, he ended up in debt bondage to a criminal gang.

Believing he was going to the UK to work in kitchens, the grower found himself in a series of lorries and flights across China and Russia, and taken into Europe via the forests of Poland.

“You have to walk for maybe two, three days… I saw one person had been beaten up… when I turned around he was unconscious… he walked too slow,” the grower told researchers. He believed the person he described had died.

The grower arrived in the UK in a lorry container. He was eventually taken to a house already full of cannabis plants and shown how to tend them, and given an allowance for food and phone calls home.

“I do not dare leave the house without telling them, because I fear for my life… They told me if I tried to escape they would harm my family,” said the grower.

He remembered police asking some questions about being forced to work, and he had told them. His legal advisor asked no such questions. He did not consider himself a trafficking victim, as he had wanted to come to the UK.

The police interviewer of the grower was a 33-year-old probationary police officer. He had been given an interview plan, and told researchers he viewed the matter in simple terms: “…you’re interviewing him as a suspect to get a confession, or to get the points across to get the conviction or charge…”.

No trafficking questions were in the officer’s plan, but he asked some anyway based on the grower’s response. The officer acknowledged his ignorance of modern slavery legislation to researchers.

A further interview was done by the officer’s supervisor, who was in charge of the investigation. He told researchers the training given to police on slavery – one hour-long session – was insufficient, and until guidance improved they had to rely on instinct.

The officer-in-charge entered a submission to the National Referral Mechanism – the framework set up in 2009 to ensure victims of trafficking receive help. The NRM returned a decision that the grower had “consented” to the illegal work, so was not a victim, and he was sentenced to prison.


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Hints of Life Discovered on Venus

Synthesized false colour image of Venus
source: www.cam.ac.uk

 

A UK-led team of astronomers has discovered a rare molecule – phosphine – in the clouds of Venus, pointing to the possibility of extra-terrestrial ‘aerial’ life.

 

The presence of life is the only known explanation for the amount of phosphine inferred by observations

Paul Rimmer

Astronomers have speculated for decades that high clouds on Venus could offer a home for microbes – floating free of the scorching surface, but tolerating very high acidity. The detection of phosphine molecules, which consist of hydrogen and phosphorus, is an important step in the search for life beyond Earth, a key question in science. The results are reported in the journal Nature Astronomy.

The discovery was made by Professor Jane Greaves while she was a visitor at the University of Cambridge’s Institute of Astronomy. Greaves and her collaborators used the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope (JCMT) in Hawaii to detect the phosphine, and followed up their discovery on the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile. Both facilities observe Venus at a wavelength of about 1 millimetre, much longer than the human eye can see.

“This was an experiment made out of pure curiosity, really – taking advantage of JCMT’s powerful technology, and thinking about future instruments,” said Greaves, who is based at Cardiff University. “I thought we’d just be able to rule out extreme scenarios, like the clouds being stuffed full of organisms. When we got the first hints of phosphine in Venus’ spectrum, it was a shock!”

Luckily, conditions were good at ALMA for follow-up observations while Venus was at a suitable angle to Earth. Processing the data was challenging, however, as ALMA isn’t usually looking for subtle effects in bright objects like Venus.

“In the end, we found that both observatories had seen the same thing – faint absorption at the right wavelength to be phosphine gas, where the molecules are backlit by the warmer clouds below,” said Greaves.

Using existing models of the Venusian atmosphere to interpret the data, the researchers found that phosphine is present but scarce – only about twenty molecules in every billion. The astronomers then ran calculations to see if the phosphine could come from natural processes on Venus. They caution that some information is lacking – in fact, the only other study of phosphorus on Venus came from one lander experiment, carried by the Soviet Vega 2 mission in 1985.

On Earth, phosphine is only made industrially or by microbes that thrive in oxygen-free environments. Co-author Dr William Bains from MIT led the work on assessing natural ways to make phosphine on Venus. Ideas included sunlight, minerals blown upwards from the surface, volcanoes, or lightning, but none of these could make anywhere near enough. Natural sources were found to make at most one ten-thousandth of the amount of phosphine that the telescopes saw.

To create the observed quantity of phosphine on Venus, terrestrial organisms would only need to work at about 10% of their maximum productivity, according to calculations by co-author Dr Paul Rimmer of Cambridge’s Department of Earth Sciences. Any microbes on Venus will likely be very different from their Earth cousins though, to survive in hyper-acidic conditions.

“This discovery brings us right to the shores of the unknown,” said Rimmer, who is also affiliated with Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory. “Phosphine is very hard to make in the oxygen-rich, hydrogen-poor clouds of Venus and fairly easy to destroy. The presence of life is the only known explanation for the amount of phosphine inferred by observations.

“Both of these facts lie at the edge of our knowledge: the observations could be caused by an unknown molecule, or could be caused by chemistry we’re not aware of. Ultimately, the only way to find out what’s really happening is to send a mission into the clouds of Venus to take a sample of the droplets and look at them to see what’s inside.”

Earth bacteria can absorb phosphate minerals, add hydrogen, and ultimately expel phosphine gas. It costs them energy to do this, so why they do it is not clear. The phosphine could be just a waste product, but other scientists have suggested purposes like warding off rival bacteria.

Co-author Dr Clara Sousa Silva from MIT was also thinking about searching for phosphine as a ‘biosignature’ gas of non-oxygen-using life on planets around other stars because normal chemistry makes so little of it. “Finding phosphine on Venus was an unexpected bonus,” she said. “The discovery raises many questions, such as how any organisms could survive. On Earth, some microbes can cope with up to about 5% acid in their environment – but the clouds of Venus are almost entirely made of acid.”

Other possible biosignatures in the Solar System may exist, like methane on Mars and water venting from the icy moons Europa and Enceladus. On Venus, it has been suggested that dark streaks where ultraviolet light is absorbed could come from colonies of microbes. The Akatsuki spacecraft, launched by the Japanese space agency JAXA, is currently mapping these dark streaks to understand more about this unknown ultraviolet absorber.

The team believes their discovery is significant because they can rule out many alternative ways to make phosphine, but they acknowledge that confirming the presence of ‘life’ needs a lot more work. Although the high clouds of Venus have temperatures up to a pleasant 30 degrees Celsius, they are incredibly acidic – around 90% sulphuric acid – posing major issues for microbes to survive there. The researchers are investigating the possibility that the microbes could shield themselves inside droplets.

The team is now awaiting more telescope time to establish whether the phosphine is in a relatively temperate part of the clouds and to look for other gases associated with life. New space missions could also travel to our neighbouring planet, and sample the clouds to search for signs of life.

Professor Emma Bunce, President of the Royal Astronomical Society, said: “A key question in science is whether life exists beyond Earth, and the discovery by Professor Jane Greaves and her team is a key step forward in that quest. I’m particularly delighted to see UK scientists leading such an important breakthrough – something that makes a strong case for a return space mission to Venus.”

Reference:
Jane S. Greaves et al. ‘Phosphine Gas in the Cloud Decks of Venus.’ Nature Astronomy (2020). DOI: 10.1038/s41550-020-1174-4

Adapted from an RAS press release.


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The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Images, including our videos, are Copyright ©University of Cambridge and licensors/contributors as identified.  All rights reserved. We make our image and video content available in a number of ways – as here, on our main website under its Terms and conditions, and on a range of channels including social media that permit your use and sharing of our content under their respective Terms.

ARPA-Type Funding Gives Green Technology An ‘Innovation Advantage’, Study Finds

source: www.cam.ac.uk

 

Startups funded by US agency ARPA-E file patents at twice the rate of similar cleantech firms. The UK should trial its own climate-focused ARPA as part of COVID-19 recovery package, argues a Cambridge professor.

 

The UK should adapt the ARPA model to create an agency for the climate challenge as part of any COVID-19 recovery package

Laura Diaz Anadon

A new analysis of the successes and failures of green energy companies in the US has found that those with ARPA funding filed for far more patents in the years after launching than other “cleantech” startups from the same time.

The “innovation advantage” bestowed by ARPA-E – an energy version of the legendary DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) – was not shared by startups funded via other US government initiatives.

ARPA-type agencies were developed in the US to fund “high risk, high reward” research with the aim of fostering major breakthroughs, often by providing greater freedom to take on highly ambitious technical challenges.

The new findings offer encouragement to a UK government considering its own British ARPA (or ‘BARPA’), but any agency adopting this model requires a focus in order to flourish – and BARPA’s should be climate, argues Professor Laura Diaz Anadon from the University of Cambridge.

“Our US-based research points to the value of ARPA agencies. The UK may well benefit from such an approach in a post-pandemic world, given the technological capital within its universities and private sector,” said Anadon, co-author of the US innovation study.

“The UK should adapt the ARPA model to create an agency for the climate challenge as part of any COVID-19 recovery package. Focusing research and development on next-generation energy storage and renewables, and solutions for decarbonizing shipping, aviation and construction, could boost productivity and deliver large benefits to society,” said Anadon.

Dr Anna Goldstein, first author of the study from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, said: “ARPA is not a one-size-fits-all solution. ARPA agencies are mission-focused, and there is no evidence to suggest this model would work well as a fund for general science and technology.”

The research was conducted by the University of Cambridge, UK (Prof. Laura Diaz Anadon), the University of Massachusetts Amherst, US (Dr. Anna Goldstein and Prof. Erin Baker), and the Technical University of Munich in Germany (Prof. Claudia Doblinger). It is published today in the journal Nature Energy.

ARPA-E was established at the US Department of Energy under Obama, using a portion of the economic stimulus package that followed the 2009 financial crisis. To date, it has allocated US$3.38 billion.

The aim was to accelerate innovation in “clean” technologies such as biofuels, smart grids and solar power at a time when it was out of favour with Venture Capital investors, due in part to long development cycles and low initial returns.

For the latest study, researchers investigated whether ARPA-E – a “posterchild” of mission-orientated innovation now under threat from the Trump administration – had translated its unique approach into real-world success.

By constructing a database of 1,287 US cleantech startups, and using patents as a proxy for innovation, they found that companies funded by a fledgling ARPA-E in 2010 went on to file patents at an average of twice the rate of other green energy companies in the years that followed.

The researchers also measured “business success” by looking at how many companies were taken public or acquired by larger firms, as well as levels of private VC funding and overall survival rates.

While ARPA-funded companies do better than those turned down by ARPA-E, in general they fare no better or worse than other cleantech startups with the same amount of patents and private funding before 2010.

As such, the researchers argue that ARPA-E support alone does not bridge the “valley of death”: the phase between initial funding injection and revenue generation during which startups often fold.

Goldstein said: “It appears that ARPA-E helps startups working on riskier but potentially more disruptive technologies to reach the same levels of success as other, less risky, cleantech firms.”

“However, there is still a need for public funding to bring innovations in clean technology through the ‘valley of death’ so they can become commercial products that compete with legacy technologies and reduce emissions.”

Writing for Cambridge Zero, the University’s new climate change initiative, Laura Diaz Anadon points out that, at just 1.7% of GDP, the UK lags in R&D investment: below the EU28 average, and way behind the US, South Korea and Japan.

“While the UK dramatically increased energy investment over the last 20 years, it is still below the levels this country saw in the 1970s and 1980s,” said Anadon, Professor of Climate Change Policy at the University of Cambridge.

“My co-authors and I would recommend trialing a UK version of ARPA-E that can ramp up energy innovation, and support selected projects through to demonstration phase. R&D investments in energy transition would be an inexpensive but essential component of a Covid-19 recovery package.”

“The UK has solid recent experience in the energy space, but in the past several initiatives have fallen prey to volatile government funding before success can be properly gauged. Future efforts will need consistency as well as a set up that would enable state-of-the-art and independent evaluation.”


Creative Commons License
The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Images, including our videos, are Copyright ©University of Cambridge and licensors/contributors as identified.  All rights reserved. We make our image and video content available in a number of ways – as here, on our main website under its Terms and conditions, and on a range of channels including social media that permit your use and sharing of our content under their respective Terms.

ARM: UK-Based Chip Designer Sold To US Firm Nvidia

By Leo Kelion
Technology desk editor

Published
ARM montageIMAGE COPYRIGHTGETTY IMAGES/ARM
source: www.bbc.co.uk
UK-based computer chip designer ARM Holdings is being sold to the American graphics chip specialist Nvidia.
The deal values ARM at $40bn (£31.2bn), four years after it was bought by Japanese conglomerate Softbank for $32bn.
ARM’s technology is at the heart of most smartphones, among many other devices.
Nvidia has promised to keep the business based in the UK, to hire more staff, and to retain ARM’s brand.
It added that the deal would create “the premier computing company for the age of artificial intelligence” (AI).
“ARM will remain headquartered in Cambridge,” said Nvidia’s chief executive Jensen Huang.
“We will expand on this great site and build a world-class AI research facility, supporting developments in healthcare, life sciences, robotics, self-driving cars and other fields.”
media captionWATCH: Nvidia chief explains why he wants to buy ARM
A number of business leaders have signed an open letter calling on the Prime Minister to stop the merger.
A senior government source told the BBC that it would not block the sale, but said conditions could be imposed on the takeover.

‘Meaningless’ promises

Softbank made commitments to secure jobs and keep ARM’s headquarters in the UK until September next year.
“So far, when you read the announcement coming from Nvidia they said they will honour that Softbank has made at the time,” said Sonja Laud, chief investment officer at Legal & General Investment Management.
“But with the expiry about to happen and obviously the Brexit negotiations under way it will be very interesting to see how this develops in the future.”
This appears to address concerns that British jobs would be lost and decision-making shifted to the US. Last week, the Labour Party had urged the government to intervene.
But two of ARM’s co-founders have raised other issues about the takeover.
Hermann Hauser and Tudor Brown had suggested ARM should remain “neutral”, rather than be owned by a company like Nvidia, which produces its own processors.
The concern is that there would be a conflict of interest since ARM’s clients would become dependent on a business with which many also compete for sales.
Moreover, the two co-founders also claimed that once ARM was owned by an American firm, Washington could try to block Chinese companies from using its knowhow as part of a wider trade clash between the countries.
Hermann Hauser and Tudor BrownIMAGE COPYRIGHTAMADEUS CAPITAL/TUDOR BROWN
image captionHermann Hauser (left) and Tudor Brown (right) have warned the takeover would have negative consequences
“If ARM becomes a US subsidiary of a US company, it falls under the Cfius [Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States] regulations,” Mr Hauser told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
“[That] means that if hundreds of UK companies that incorporate ARM’s [technology] in their products, want to sell it, and export it to anywhere in the world including China – which is a major market – the decision on whether they will be allowed to export it will be made in the White House and not in Downing Street.”
He added that he believed the pledge to retain and increase the number of UK jobs was “meaningless” unless UK ministers stepped in to make it legally enforceable.
But ARM’s chief executive played down the threat of export bans.
“It isn’t to do with the ownership of the company, it’s all to do with analysis of the product itself,” Simon Segars told the BBC.
“The majority of our products are designed in the UK or outside the US, and the majority of our products don’t fall under much of the US export control set of rules.”
Mr Huang added that ARM had “some of the finest computer scientists in the world” in Cambridge and he intended to both retain them and attract others to what would become Nvidia’s largest site in Europe.

Chip creators

ARM creates computer chip designs that others then customise to their own ends. It also develops instruction sets, which define how software controls processors.
It is based in Cambridge but also has offices across the world, including a joint venture in Shenzhen, China.
Hundreds of companies license its innovations including Apple, Samsung, Huawei and Qualcomm. To date, ARM says 180 billion chips have been made based on its solutions.
When Softbank acquired ARM, it promised to keep the company’s headquarters in the UK and to increase the number of local jobs, which it did.
Softbank’s founder Masayoshi Son described the firm as being a “crystal ball” that would help him predict where tech was heading. But losses on other investments, including the office rental company WeWork, prompted a rethink.
California-headquartered Nvidia overtook Intel to become the world’s most valuable chipmaker in July.
Until now, it has specialised in high-end graphics processing units (GPUs). These are commonly used by gamers to deliver more detailed visuals, as well as by professionals for tasks including scientific research, machine learning, and cryptocurrency “mining”.
Nvidia is also one of ARM’s clients, using its designs to create its line-up of Tegra central processing units (CPUs).
Under the terms of the deal, Nvidia will pay Softbank $21.5bn in its own stock and $12bn in cash. It will follow with up to a further $5bn in cash or stock if certain targets are met.
Nvidia will also issue $1.5bn in equity to ARM’s employees.

Server chips

Mr Huang has already said that one of the changes he wants to make is to accelerate development of ARM’s designs for CPUs used in computer servers – a rapidly growing sector.
Data centreIMAGE COPYRIGHTGETTY IMAGES
image captionThe use of internet-based services has led to ever-growing demand for computer servers
But experts say one risk Nvidia faces is that the takeover could encourage ARM’s wider client list to shift focus to a rival type of chip technology, which lags behind in terms of adoption but has the benefit of not being controlled by one company.
“ARM is facing growing competition from RISC-V, an open-source architecture,” wrote CCS Insight’s Geoff Blaber in a recent research note.
“If its partners believed that ARM’s integrity and independence was compromised, it would accelerate the growth of RISC-V and in the process devalue ARM.”
Mr Blaber also suggested regulators might block the deal.
“This process will take months if not years with a high chance of failure,” he told the BBC.
Mr Huang has said that he expects it to take more than a year to “educate” regulators and answer all their questions, but said he had “every confidence” they would ultimately approve the investment.
Presentational grey line
Analysis box by Rory Cellan-Jones, technology correspondent
It’s a deal which the man who founded ARM says is a disaster.
And many in the UK’s technology industry will agree with Hermann Hauser.
He opposed the 2016 sale of the chip designer to Softbank but accepted that the Japanese firm stood by its guarantees to boost employment and research in Cambridge.
But a takeover by Nvidia, one of the many firms that licences ARM’s designs, appears to pose a threat to its business model – why will its hundreds of other customers now have faith that they will have equal access to its technology?
In recent days leading figures in the Cambridge technology sector have lobbied Downing Street, calling for ministers to intervene to bring ARM back under UK ownership. There have been signs that the government is considering a more active industrial policy.
Dominic Cummings, who has talked of the need for the UK to have a trillion dollar tech company, is leading the drive for a more interventionist approach.
Now, with Hermann Hauser and others warning that this deal will make Britain a US vassal state, the government is under pressure to step in and ensure that control over vital home-grown technology is not lost to a foreign power.

Computational Modelling Explains Why Blues and Greens Are Brightest Colours In Nature

Macaw
source: www.cam.ac.uk

 

Researchers have shown why intense, pure red colours in nature are mainly produced by pigments, instead of the structural colour that produces bright blue and green hues.

 

In addition to their intensity and resistance to fading, a matt paint which uses structural colour would also be far more environmentally-friendly, as toxic dyes and pigments would not be needed

Gianni Jacucci

The researchers, from the University of Cambridge, used a numerical experiment to determine the limits of matt structural colour – a phenomenon which is responsible for some of the most intense colours in nature – and found that it extends only as far as blue and green in the visible spectrum. The results, published in PNAS, could be useful in the development of non-toxic paints or coatings with intense colour that never fades.

Structural colour, which is seen in some bird feathers, butterfly wings or insects, is not caused by pigments or dyes, but internal structure alone. The appearance of the colour, whether matt or iridescent, will depending on how the structures are arranged at the nanoscale.

Ordered, or crystalline, structures result in iridescent colours, which change when viewed from different angles. Disordered, or correlated, structures result in angle-independent matt colours, which look the same from any viewing angle. Since structural colour does not fade, these angle-independent matt colours would be highly useful for applications such as paints or coatings, where metallic effects are not wanted.

“In addition to their intensity and resistance to fading, a matt paint which uses structural colour would also be far more environmentally-friendly, as toxic dyes and pigments would not be needed,” said first author Gianni Jacucci from Cambridge’s Department of Chemistry. “However, we first need to understand what the limitations are for recreating these types of colours before any commercial applications are possible.”

“Most of the examples of structural colour in nature are iridescent – so far, examples of naturally-occurring matt structural colour only exist in blue or green hues,” said co-author Lukas Schertel. “When we’ve tried to artificially recreate matt structural colour for reds or oranges, we end up with a poor-quality result, both in terms of saturation and colour purity.”

The researchers, who are based in the lab of Dr Silvia Vignolini, used numerical modelling to determine the limitations of creating saturated, pure and matt red structural colour.

The researchers modelled the optical response and colour appearance of nanostructures, as found in the natural world. They found that saturated, matt structural colours cannot be recreated in the red region of the visible spectrum, which might explain the absence of these hues in natural systems.

“Because of the complex interplay between single scattering and multiple scattering, and contributions from correlated scattering, we found that in addition to red, yellow and orange can also hardly be reached,” said Vignolini.

Despite the apparent limitations of structural colour, the researchers say these can be overcome by using other kinds of nanostructures, such as network structures or multi-layered hierarchical structures, although these systems are not fully understood yet.

Reference:
Gianni Jacucci et al. ‘The limitations of extending nature’s colour palette in correlated, disordered systems.’ PNAS (2020). DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2010486117

 


Creative Commons License
The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Images, including our videos, are Copyright ©University of Cambridge and licensors/contributors as identified.  All rights reserved. We make our image and video content available in a number of ways – as here, on our main website under its Terms and conditions, and on a range of channels including social media that permit your use and sharing of our content under their respective Terms.

Computational Modelling Explains Why Blues And Greens Are Brightest Colours In Nature

Macaw
source: www.cam.ac.uk

 

Researchers have shown why intense, pure red colours in nature are mainly produced by pigments, instead of the structural colour that produces bright blue and green hues.

 

In addition to their intensity and resistance to fading, a matt paint which uses structural colour would also be far more environmentally-friendly, as toxic dyes and pigments would not be needed

Gianni Jacucci

The researchers, from the University of Cambridge, used a numerical experiment to determine the limits of matt structural colour – a phenomenon which is responsible for some of the most intense colours in nature – and found that it extends only as far as blue and green in the visible spectrum. The results, published in PNAS, could be useful in the development of non-toxic paints or coatings with intense colour that never fades.

Structural colour, which is seen in some bird feathers, butterfly wings or insects, is not caused by pigments or dyes, but internal structure alone. The appearance of the colour, whether matt or iridescent, will depending on how the structures are arranged at the nanoscale.

Ordered, or crystalline, structures result in iridescent colours, which change when viewed from different angles. Disordered, or correlated, structures result in angle-independent matt colours, which look the same from any viewing angle. Since structural colour does not fade, these angle-independent matt colours would be highly useful for applications such as paints or coatings, where metallic effects are not wanted.

“In addition to their intensity and resistance to fading, a matt paint which uses structural colour would also be far more environmentally-friendly, as toxic dyes and pigments would not be needed,” said first author Gianni Jacucci from Cambridge’s Department of Chemistry. “However, we first need to understand what the limitations are for recreating these types of colours before any commercial applications are possible.”

“Most of the examples of structural colour in nature are iridescent – so far, examples of naturally-occurring matt structural colour only exist in blue or green hues,” said co-author Lukas Schertel. “When we’ve tried to artificially recreate matt structural colour for reds or oranges, we end up with a poor-quality result, both in terms of saturation and colour purity.”

The researchers, who are based in the lab of Dr Silvia Vignolini, used numerical modelling to determine the limitations of creating saturated, pure and matt red structural colour.

The researchers modelled the optical response and colour appearance of nanostructures, as found in the natural world. They found that saturated, matt structural colours cannot be recreated in the red region of the visible spectrum, which might explain the absence of these hues in natural systems.

“Because of the complex interplay between single scattering and multiple scattering, and contributions from correlated scattering, we found that in addition to red, yellow and orange can also hardly be reached,” said Vignolini.

Despite the apparent limitations of structural colour, the researchers say these can be overcome by using other kinds of nanostructures, such as network structures or multi-layered hierarchical structures, although these systems are not fully understood yet.

Reference:
Gianni Jacucci et al. ‘The limitations of extending nature’s colour palette in correlated, disordered systems.’ PNAS (2020). DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2010486117

 


Creative Commons License
The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Images, including our videos, are Copyright ©University of Cambridge and licensors/contributors as identified.  All rights reserved. We make our image and video content available in a number of ways – as here, on our main website under its Terms and conditions, and on a range of channels including social media that permit your use and sharing of our content under their respective Terms.

Autistic Adults Have a Higher Rate of physical Health Conditions

Doctor testing blood pressure
source: www.cam.ac.uk

 

Autistic individuals are more likely to have chronic physical health conditions, particularly heart, lung, and diabetic conditions, according to a new study by researchers at the University of Cambridge. The results are published in the journal Autism.

 

This is a first step in better understanding why autistic individuals are so much more likely to have chronic physical health problems

Elizabeth Weir

Earlier research has shown that autistic people on average die younger than others and that this may be, in part, due to chronic physical health conditions. Previous studies have also shown that autistic people are at higher risk of a variety of health conditions, but we don’t know what is driving these increased risks. Thus, better understanding of the physical health of autistic adults may help us improve both their quality and length of life.

1,156 autistic individuals and 1,212 non-autistic individuals took part in an anonymous, online survey developed by the team about their lifestyle choices and daily habits, personal and family medical history. The results indicate that autistic individuals are, on average, 1.5 to 4.3 times as likely to have a wide variety of health conditions, including low blood pressure, arrhythmias, asthma, and prediabetes.

This new study is also the first to examine the influence of smoking, alcohol use, and BMI. Surprisingly, the results show that these lifestyle factors (which increase the risk of chronic physical health problems in the general population) do not account for the heightened risk of heart, lung, and diabetic conditions seen among autistic adults.

The study also explored the experiences of female respondents and of older adults, both of whom remain understudied groups. The results revealed that autistic females, even more so than autistic males, are more likely to report increased risks of physical health conditions. In addition, the types of conditions of risk depend on the person’s biological sex. For example, autistic females are 4.3 times more likely to have prediabetes than non-autistic females; however, autistic and non-autistic males are equally likely to have prediabetes. These results suggest that a “one size fits all” approach to the healthcare of autistic people may not be effective.

Elizabeth Weir, the PhD student who led the study, said: “This is a first step in better understanding why autistic individuals are so much more likely to have chronic physical health problems. While smoking, alcohol, and BMI may play a role, we now need to focus on what other biological (e.g. genetic, hormonal, etc), environmental, lifestyle (e.g. diet, exercise, sleep, etc) or healthcare-related factors are contributing to these health disparities.”

Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, Director of the Autism Research Centre at Cambridge, who was part of the team, said: “This new study highlights the physical health risks to autistic individuals, and has important implications for their healthcare. Understanding the reasons why these disparities exist will allow us to better support autistic individuals and improve the quality and length of their lives.”

Funding for this project was provided by the Autism Research Trust, the Rosetrees Trust, and the Cambridge and Peterborough NHS Foundation Trust.

Reference
Weir, E at al. Increased prevalence of non-communicable physical health conditions among autistic adults. Autism; 9 Sept 2020; DOI: 10.1177/1362361320953652


Creative Commons License
The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Images, including our videos, are Copyright ©University of Cambridge and licensors/contributors as identified.  All rights reserved. We make our image and video content available in a number of ways – as here, on our main website under its Terms and conditions, and on a range of channels including social media that permit your use and sharing of our content under their respective Terms.

Punctured Lung Affects Almost One In a Hundred Hospitalised COVID-19 Patients

Deflated balloons representing punctured lung after COVID-19 infection
source: www.cam.ac.uk

 

As many as one in 100 patients admitted to hospital with COVID-19 develop a pneumothorax – a ‘punctured lung’ – according to a study led by Cambridge researchers.

 

Doctors need to be alert to the possibility of a punctured lung in patients with COVID-19, even in people who would not be thought to be typical at-risk patients

Stefan Marciniak

Like the inner tube of bicycle or car tyre, damage to the lungs can lead to a puncture. As air leaks out, it builds up in the cavity between the lung and chest wall, causing the lung to collapse. Known as a pneumothorax, this condition typically affects very tall young men or older patients with severe underlying lung disease.

During the pandemic, a team at the University of Cambridge and Addenbrooke’s Hospital, Cambridge University NHS Foundation Trust, observed several patients with COVID-19 who had developed punctured lungs, even though they did not fall into either of these two categories.

“We started to see patients affected by a punctured lung, even among those who were not put on a ventilator,” says Professor Stefan Marciniak from the Cambridge Institute for Medical Research. “To see if this was a real association, I put a call out to respiratory colleagues across the UK via Twitter. The response was dramatic – this was clearly something that others in the field were seeing.”

Professor Marciniak subsequently obtained the appropriate ethical approvals and exchanged anonymised clinic information about 71 patients from around the UK. This led to a study published today in the European Respiratory Journal.

Although the team are unable to provide an accurate estimate of the incidence of punctured lung in COVID-19, admissions data from the 16 hospitals participating in the study revealed an incidence of 0.91%.

“Doctors need to be alert to the possibility of a punctured lung in patients with COVID-19, even in people who would not be thought to be typical at-risk patients,” said Professor Marciniak, who is also a Fellow at St Catharine’s College, Cambridge. “Many of the cases we reported were found incidentally – that is, their doctor had not suspected a punctured lung and the diagnosis was made by chance.”

Just under two-thirds (63%) of patients with a punctured lung survived. Individuals younger than 70 years tended to survive well, but older age was associated with a poor outcome – a 71% survival rate among under 70s patients compared with 42% among older patients.

Patients with a punctured lung were three times more likely to be male than female, though this may be accounted for by the fact that large studies of patients with COVID-19 suggest that men are more commonly affected by severe forms the disease. However, the survival rate did not differ between the sexes.

Patients who had abnormally acidic blood, a condition known as acidosis that can result from poor lung function, also had poorer outcomes in COVID-19 pneumothorax.

Dr Anthony Martinelli, a respiratory doctor at Addenbrooke’s Hospital, said: “Although a punctured lung is a very serious condition, COVID-19 patients younger than 70 tend to respond very well to treatment. Older patients or those with abnormally acidic blood are at greater risk of death and may therefore need more specialist care.”

The team say there may be several ways that COVID-19 leads to a punctured lung. These include the formation of cysts in the lungs, which has previously been observed in x-rays and CT scans.

Reference
Martinelli, A, et al. COVID-19 and Pneumothorax: A Multicentre Retrospective Case Series. European Respiratory Journal; 10 Sept 2020; DOI: 10.1183/13993003.02697-2020


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The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Images, including our videos, are Copyright ©University of Cambridge and licensors/contributors as identified.  All rights reserved. We make our image and video content available in a number of ways – as here, on our main website under its Terms and conditions, and on a range of channels including social media that permit your use and sharing of our content under their respective Term

Living Planet Report Reveals 68% Decline In Global Wildlife Populations Since 1970

source: www.cam.ac.uk

 

Global populations of mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and fish have declined by over two-thirds in less than half a century, due in large part to the same environmental destruction that is contributing to the emergence of zoonotic diseases like COVID-19, according to a World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) report released today.

 

What happens to insects matters a lot to humanity

Lynn Dicks

The WWF’s Living Planet Report 2020 presents a comprehensive overview of the state of our natural world as captured by the Living Planet Index (LPI) of the Zoological Society of London (ZSL). Almost 21,000 populations of over 4,000 vertebrate species were tracked between 1970 and 2016, with contributions from over 125 experts from around the world.

“The Living Planet Report 2020 underlines how humanity’s increasing destruction of nature is having catastrophic impacts not only on wildlife populations, but on human health and all aspects of our lives,” said Marco Lambertini, Director General of WWF International.

He added: “In the midst of a global pandemic, it is now more important than ever to take unprecedented and coordinated global action to halt and reverse the loss of biodiversity and wildlife populations across the globe by the end of the decade.”

The report shows that the main cause of the dramatic decline in species populations on land is habitat loss and degradation, including deforestation, driven by food production. Factors believed to increase the planet’s vulnerability to pandemics, including land-use change and the use and trade of wildlife, are also drivers of the decline.

Endangered species include the eastern lowland gorilla, whose numbers in the Kahuzi-Biega National Park, Democratic Republic of Congo have seen an estimated 87 percent decline between 1994 and 2015 mostly due to illegal hunting, and the African grey parrot in southwest Ghana, whose numbers fell by up to 99 percent between 1992 and 2014 due to threats posed by trapping for the wild bird trade and habitat loss.

Wildlife populations found in freshwater habitats have suffered a decline of 84 per cent – the starkest average population decline in any biome. For example, the spawning population of the Chinese sturgeon in China’s Yangtze river declined by 97 percent between 1982 and 2015 due to the damming of the waterway.

University of Cambridge zoologists Dr Lynn Dicks and Dr Edgar Turner contributed a summary of global insect decline to the report. They reveal evidence of recent, rapid declines in insect abundance and diversity in some places, but not everywhere. The researchers highlight the importance of long-term monitoring of insect abundance around the world.

Dicks, a Lecturer in Animal Ecology in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Zoology, said: “Most information about insects comes from a small number of countries in the northern hemisphere. There is very little information from large parts of the world such as Africa, South America and Asia, where land use change and agricultural expansion – key drivers of insect decline – are happening fast.”

She added: “What happens to insects matters a lot to humanity. These small six-legged creatures play central roles in the world’s ecosystems – as waste processors, pollinators, predators, and prey. Without them, humans – and all of nature – could be in a lot of trouble.”

Dr Andrew Terry, ZSL’s Director of Conservation said: “This report is clear evidence of the damage human activity is doing to the natural world. If nothing changes, populations will undoubtedly continue to fall, driving wildlife to extinction and threatening the integrity of the ecosystems on which we all depend. But we also know that conservation works and species can be brought back from the brink. With commitment, investment and expertise, these trends can be reversed.”

Stabilising and reversing the loss of nature caused by humans’ destruction of natural habitats will only be possible if bolder, more ambitious conservation efforts are embraced, and transformational changes made to the way we produce and consume food. Changes include making food production and trade more efficient and ecologically sustainable, reducing waste, and favouring healthier and more environmentally-friendly diets. Implementing these measures together, rather than in isolation, will allow the world to more rapidly alleviate pressures on wildlife habitats.

The Living Planet Report 2020 launches less than a week before the 75th session of the United Nations General Assembly, when leaders are expected to review the progress made on the Sustainable Development Goals, the Paris Agreement and the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). Bringing together world leaders, businesses and civil society, the meeting will develop the post-2020 framework for action for global biodiversity.

Lambertini said: “With leaders gathering virtually for the UN General Assembly in a few days’ time, this research can help us secure a New Deal for Nature and People which will be key to the long-term survival of wildlife, plant and insect populations and the whole of nature, including humankind.  A New Deal has never been needed more.”

The Living Planet Report is WWF’s flagship publication and is produced every two years as a comprehensive study of trends in global biodiversity and the health of the planet. This is the 13th edition.

Adapted from a press release by WWF.

 


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The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Images, including our videos, are Copyright ©University of Cambridge and licensors/contributors as identified.  All rights reserved. We make our image and video content available in a number of ways – as here, on our main website under its Terms and conditions, and on a range of channels including social media that permit your use and sharing of our content under their respective Terms.

AI shows How Hydrogen Becomes a Metal Inside Giant Planets

source: www.cam.ac.uk

 

Researchers have used a combination of AI and quantum mechanics to reveal how hydrogen gradually turns into a metal in giant planets.

 

The existence of metallic hydrogen was theorised a century ago, but what we haven’t known is how this process occurs

Bingqing Cheng

Dense metallic hydrogen – a phase of hydrogen which behaves like an electrical conductor – makes up the interior of giant planets, but it is difficult to study and poorly understood. By combining artificial intelligence and quantum mechanics, researchers have found how hydrogen becomes a metal under the extreme pressure conditions of these planets.

The researchers, from the University of Cambridge, IBM Research and EPFL, used machine learning to mimic the interactions between hydrogen atoms in order to overcome the size and timescale limitations of even the most powerful supercomputers. They found that instead of happening as a sudden, or first-order, transition, the hydrogen changes in a smooth and gradual way. The results are reported in the journal Nature.

Hydrogen, consisting of one proton and one electron, is both the simplest and the most abundant element in the Universe. It is the dominant component of the interior of the giant planets in our solar system – Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune – as well as exoplanets orbiting other stars.

At the surfaces of giant planets, hydrogen remains a molecular gas. Moving deeper into the interiors of giant planets however, the pressure exceeds millions of standard atmospheres. Under this extreme compression, hydrogen undergoes a phase transition: the covalent bonds inside hydrogen molecules break, and the gas becomes a metal that conducts electricity.

“The existence of metallic hydrogen was theorised a century ago, but what we haven’t known is how this process occurs, due to the difficulties in recreating the extreme pressure conditions of the interior of a giant planet in a laboratory setting, and the enormous complexities of predicting the behaviour of large hydrogen systems,” said lead author Dr Bingqing Cheng from Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory.

Experimentalists have attempted to investigate dense hydrogen using a diamond anvil cell, in which two diamonds apply high pressure to a confined sample. Although diamond is the hardest substance on Earth, the device will fail under extreme pressure and high temperatures, especially when in contact with hydrogen, contrary to the claim that a diamond is forever. This makes the experiments both difficult and expensive.

Theoretical studies are also challenging: although the motion of hydrogen atoms can be solved using equations based on quantum mechanics, the computational power needed to calculate the behaviour of systems with more than a few thousand atoms for longer than a few nanoseconds exceeds the capability of the world’s largest and fastest supercomputers.

It is commonly assumed that the transition of dense hydrogen is first-order, which is accompanied by abrupt changes in all physical properties. A common example of a first-order phase transition is boiling liquid water: once the liquid becomes a vapour, its appearance and behaviour completely change despite the fact that the temperature and the pressure remain the same.

In the current theoretical study, Cheng and her colleagues used machine learning to mimic the interactions between hydrogen atoms, in order to overcome limitations of direct quantum mechanical calculations.

“We reached a surprising conclusion and found evidence for a continuous molecular to atomic transition in the dense hydrogen fluid, instead of a first-order one,” said Cheng, who is also a Junior Research Fellow at Trinity College.

The transition is smooth because the associated ‘critical point’ is hidden. Critical points are ubiquitous in all phase transitions between fluids: all substances that can exist in two phases have critical points. A system with an exposed critical point, such as the one for vapour and liquid water, has clearly distinct phases. However, the dense hydrogen fluid, with the hidden critical point, can transform gradually and continuously between the molecular and the atomic phases. Furthermore, this hidden critical point also induces other unusual phenomena, including density and heat capacity maxima.

The finding about the continuous transition provides a new way of interpreting the contradicting body of experiments on dense hydrogen. It also implies a smooth transition between insulating and metallic layers in giant gas planets. The study would not be possible without combining machine learning, quantum mechanics, and statistical mechanics. Without any doubt, this approach will uncover more physical insights about hydrogen systems in the future. As the next step, the researchers aim to answer the many open questions concerning the solid phase diagram of dense hydrogen.

Reference:
Bingqing Cheng et al. ‘Evidence for supercritical behaviour of high-pressure liquid hydrogen.’ Nature (2020). DOI: 10.1038/s41586-020-2677-y.


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Cambridge-Developed SARS-CoV-2 Vaccine Receives £1.9million From UK Government For Clinical Trial

Coronavirus
source: www.cam.ac.uk

 

A Cambridge-developed vaccine candidate against SARS-CoV-2 could begin clinical trials in the UK in late autumn or early next year, thanks to a £1.9million award from the UK government.

 

Our approach – using synthetic DNA to deliver custom designed, immune selected vaccine antigens – is revolutionary and is ideal for complex viruses such as coronavirus. If successful, it will result in a vaccine that should be safe for widespread use and that can be manufactured and distributed at low cost

Rebecca Kinsley

Innovate UK, the UK government’s innovation agency, has provided the funding for a collaboration between Cambridge spin-out company DIOSynVax (which is contributing an additional £400,000 to the trial), the University of Cambridge and the University Hospital Southampton NHS Foundation Trust.

SARS-CoV-2 is a coronavirus, a class of virus named after their appearance: spherical objects, on the surface of which sit ‘spike’ proteins. The virus uses these spikes to attach to and invade cells in our body. One vaccine strategy is to block this attachment; however, not all immune responses against this virus and against this spike protein are protective – antibodies to the wrong part of the spike protein have been implicated in triggering hyper-inflammatory immune responses causing life-threatening COVID-19 disease. Added to this, SARS-CoV-2 is mutating and changes in the virus spike protein during the COVID-19 pandemic have already been observed to be widespread.

To develop their new vaccine candidate – DIOS-CoVax2 – the team use banks of genetic sequences of all known coronaviruses, including those from bats, the natural hosts of many relatives of human coronaviruses. The team have developed libraries of computer-generated antigen structures encoded by synthetic genes that can train the human immune system to target key regions of the virus and to produce beneficial anti-viral responses. These immune responses include neutralising antibodies, which block virus infection, and T-cells, which remove virus-infected cells. This ‘laser-specific’ computer generated approach is able to help avoid the adverse hyper-inflammatory immune responses that can be triggered by recognition of the wrong parts on the coronavirus’s surface.

Professor Jonathan Heeney, head of the Laboratory of Viral Zoonotics at the University of Cambridge, and founder of DIOSynVax, said: “Our approach involves 3D computer modelling of the SARS-CoV-2 virus’s structure. It uses information on the virus itself as well as its relatives – SARS, MERS and other coronaviruses carried by animals that threaten to ‘spill-over’ to humans again to cause future human epidemics.

“We’re looking for chinks in its armour, crucial pieces of the virus that we can use to construct the vaccine to direct the immune response in the right direction. Ultimately we aim to make a vaccine that will not only protect from SARS-CoV-2, but also other related coronaviruses that may spill over from animals to humans.

“Our strategy includes targeting those domains of the virus’s structure that are absolutely critical for docking with a cell, while avoiding the parts that could make things worse. What we end up with is a mimic, a synthetic part of the virus minus those non-essential elements that could trigger a bad immune response.”

While most vaccines use RNA or adenoviruses to deliver their antigens, DIOSynVax’s is based around DNA. These synthetic gene inserts are very versatile and can also be placed within a number of different vaccine delivery systems that other companies are using. Once an antigen is identified, the key piece of genetic code that the virus uses to produce the essential parts of its structure is inserted into a DNA parcel known as a vector. The body’s immune cells take up the vector, decode the DIOS-vaccine antigen and use the information to program the rest of the immune system to produce antibodies against it.

This DNA vector has already been shown to be safe and to be effective at stimulating an immune response against other pathogens in multiple phase I and early phase II trials.

The proposed vaccine can be freeze-dried as a powder and is therefore heat stable, meaning that it does not need to be cold-stored. This makes transport and storage much more straightforward – which is particularly important in low- and middle-income countries where the infrastructure to make this possible can be costly. The vaccine can be delivered pain-free without a needle into the skin, using the PharmaJet Tropis ® intradermal Needle-free Injection System, which delivers the vaccine in less than a 1/10th of a second by spring-powered jet injection.

Dr Rebecca Kinsley, Chief Operating Officer of DIOSynVax and a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Cambridge, added: “Most research groups have used established approaches to vaccine development because of the urgent need to tackle the pandemic. We all hope the current clinical trials have a positive outcome, but even successful vaccines are likely to have their limitations – they may be unsuitable for vulnerable people, and we do not know how long their effects will last for, for example.

“Our approach – using synthetic DNA to deliver custom designed, immune selected vaccine antigens – is revolutionary and is ideal for complex viruses such as coronavirus. If successful, it will result in a vaccine that should be safe for widespread use and that can be manufactured and distributed at low cost.”

The UKRI funding will allow the team to take the vaccine candidate to clinical trial, which will take place at the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Southampton Clinical Research Facility at the University Hospital Southampton NHS Foundation Trust and could begin as early as late autumn this year.

Professor Saul Faust, Director of the NIHR Southampton Clinical Research Facility, said: “It is critical that different vaccine technologies are tested as part of the UK and global response to the pandemic as at this stage no one can be sure which type of vaccine will produce the best and most long-lived immune responses.

“It is especially exciting that the clinical trial will test giving the vaccine through people’s skin using a device without any needles as together with stable DNA vaccine technology this could be a major breakthrough in being able to give a future vaccine to huge numbers of people across the world.”

Phil Packer, Innovation Lead for AMR and Vaccines at Innovate UK, said: “Innovate UK is excited to fund the development of DIOS-CoVax and its assessment in Phase I Clinical Trials. The rapid identification of the DIOS-CoVax2 vaccine was made possible because DIOSynVax were able to rapidly utilise its vaccine platform technology previously developed for an Ebola/ Marburg/Lassa fever vaccine.

“That was delivered by Innovate UK as part of DHSC’s Global Health Security Programme, which saw £110m invested in a new UK Vaccine Network charged with developing new vaccines and technologies to tackle diseases with epidemic potential.”

DIOSynVax is a spin-out company from the University of Cambridge, set up in 2017 with the support of Cambridge Enterprise, the University’s commercialisation arm.

How you can support Cambridge’s COVID-19 research effort

Donate to support COVID-19 research at Cambridge


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Understand What Works When Trying To Protect Monkeys and Apes, Say Scientists

Researcher recording data on a group of habituated chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes verus) in Taï National Park, Ivory Coast.
source: www.cam.ac.uk

 

Despite significant protection efforts, global populations of monkeys and apes are declining dramatically. A new study has found that the effectiveness of protection measures is rarely evaluated, and calls for an evidence-based approach to future conservation efforts to prevent imminent extinctions.

 

Our findings imply that many primate conservation activities are carried out without demonstrably knowing if they have worked or not in other similar situations. This is alarming.

Silviu Petrovan

Primates are the group of mammals that includes monkeys, apes, lemurs – and humans. There is far more research and conservation funding for non-human primates than other animal species, due largely to their charisma and their close relationship with humans. Despite this, about 60 percent of primate species are now threatened with extinction and 75 percent have declining populations.

In a study published today in the journal BioScience, a team of experts in 21 countries examined 13,000 primate studies. They found a severe lack of evidence for the effectiveness of primate conservation measures.

The team found only 80 primate studies that investigated the effectiveness of conservation measures. In addition, only 12 percent of threatened primates and 14 percent of all known primate species were covered by these intervention studies. The studies focused on large-bodied primates and Old World monkeys, particularly great apes, but left out entire families such as tarsiers and night monkeys.

Despite the taxonomic biases, the authors also found that primate studies were biased towards specific geographic regions and interventions. Fewer than half of the 162 possible primate conservation activities identified by primate experts were evaluated quantitatively.

Likewise, almost 80 percent of tested interventions were of unknown effectiveness. This was due to studies lacking quantitative data, difficulties in undertaking post-implementation monitoring of populations or individuals, or implementing several interventions at once.

“Our findings imply that many primate conservation activities are carried out without demonstrably knowing if they have worked or not in other similar situations. This is alarming, given the urgent need for effective conservation measures for these species. Primate conservationists need to showcase the most effective actions for others to learn from,” said Dr Silviu Petrovan in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Zoology, who co-led the research.

“Whether a species was threatened or not played no role for the scientists in the choice of their studied species. We therefore lack the evidence-based information necessary to effectively protect and manage many vulnerable species,” said Dr Jessica Junker at the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv) and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology (MPI-EVA), who co-led the research with Dr Petrovan.

The study outlines several reasons for the lack of evidence on what works in primate conservation. These include the pattern of survival and reproduction events typical for members of this taxonomic group, also referred to as life history traits.

“Primates tend to occur at low densities, have slow life histories, and their tree-dwelling habits make them difficult to count. This requires innovative methods and intense monitoring over long periods, specific knowledge and hard-to-obtain long-term funding,” said Hjalmar Kühl at iDiv, MPI-EVA, senior author of the study.

The authors say there is another disincentive for primate researchers to conduct evaluations of their primate conservation work: publishing can be extremely time and resource intensive, and difficult to achieve in high impact science journals, especially when the results show that a conservation measure was not effective.

They propose several measures to improve the evidence-base for primate conservation. These include: raising resources for intervention-effectiveness testing and publication, developing guidelines for primate conservation activities, shifting the research focus to threatened species and understudied regions, and seeking long-term collaborations with stakeholders.

The study was led by researchers from the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv), the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology (MPI-EVA) and the University of Cambridge.

Adapted from a press release by the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv).

Reference
Junker, J. & Petrovan, S. O., ‘Severe Lack of Evidence Limits Effective Conservation of the World’s Primates.’ BioScience, 2020. DOI: 10.1093/biosci/biaa082


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Cambridge to Lead National Consortium Examining Immune Response To SARS-CoV-2 Coronavirus

source: www.cam.ac.uk

 

The University of Cambridge and Royal Papworth Hospital have secured £1.5million of funding as part of the national effort by UK immunologists to understand immune responses to SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

 

The study is one of three new UK-wide studies receiving a share of £8.4 million from UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR).

The Humoral Immune Correlates of COVID-19 (HICC) consortium will study the humoral immune response – molecules produced by the immune system to fight infection, including antibodies – by focusing on two cohorts: NHS workers – in collaboration with SIREN – to track immunity over 12 months, and hospitalised patients.

It will look in detail at the role of antibodies in immunity to SARS-CoV-2 and characterize the antibody response in people who have mild or asymptomatic infection versus those who develop moderate or severe COVID-19 disease. The researchers want to better understand the differences between beneficial – or protective – antibody responses versus those that cause disease. This will help to determine why early indications suggest that people with stronger antibody responses may have had more life-threatening disease and what types of antibody responses are more effective in preventing severe infection.

The results from the study will help to develop better tests to diagnose protective immunity as well as determine how long protective antibodies persist after exposure to the virus. The researchers also hope the study will inform treatments for COVID-19 patients at different stages and with different severities of the disease, including whether targeting the overactivation of the innate humoral immune response – known as the ‘complement system’ – to SARS-CoV-2, could provide a unique approach to reducing severe COVID-19 related disease and death.

The consortium is a collaboration led by Professor Wilhelm Schwaeble and Professor Jonathan Heeney at the University of Cambridge, and Dr Helen Baxendale at the Royal Papworth Hospital NHS Trust.

“Understanding the role of antibody responses to SARS-CoV-2, and the role that the overactivation of the immediate innate immune response to the virus plays through complement activation in the initiation and maintenance of inflammatory disease, is critical to improve the clinical management of life-threatening cases of COVID-19,” said Dr Baxendale.

“In critical care, we know most patients have high levels of antibody to SARS-CoV-2 however what we don’t know is whether these antibodies are helpful. Pilot data has shown that many of our NHS staff have been exposed to SARS-CoV-2, but we need to find out whether this means they are protected from further infection either in the short or the long term, or may be at risk of disease in the future. Understanding the different types of antibody responses will allow us to determine beneficial antibodies from dangerous ones.

“Collaborating nationally with other UK COVID-19 projects and supported by clinical research networks and scientists across the country, we are delighted to receive this investment to answer these fundamentally important questions.”

HICC has been given urgent public health research status by the Department of Health and Social Care, to prioritise its delivery by the health and care system.

Chief Medical Officer for England and Head of the NIHR Professor Chris Whitty said: “Understanding how our immune systems respond to COVID-19 is key to solving some of the important questions about this new disease, including whether those who have had the disease develop immunity and how long this lasts, and why some are more severely affected.

“This investment by the NIHR and UKRI will help immunology experts to discover how our immune systems respond to SARS-CoV-2, including our T cell response. This is vital information to help prevent and treat the disease.”

Science Minister Amanda Solloway said: “Thanks to the brilliant work of our world-leading scientists and researchers, we continue to gain greater knowledge and understanding of coronavirus, enabling us to rapidly develop new treatments, as well as potential new vaccines.”


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Scriptures Rarely a Significant Motivating Factor Behind Violence, Say Researchers

World Trade Centre 9/11
source: www.cam.ac.uk

 

Many people misunderstand the relationship between religion, scripture and violence, a new book argues. Some people worry that scriptures such as the Qur’an and the Bible fan the flames of violence in the world today, while others insist that they are inherently peaceful. According to an international team of researchers, the reality may be more complicated than either set of people think.

 

Some people think that the best strategy for preventing violence is to pretend certain scriptural passages don’t exist. But that’s counterproductive. Instead, find out how people within these religious traditions actually understand these scriptures

Julia Snyder

When acts of violence are reported in London, New York, or the Middle East, people often wonder what role religion might have played. Especially if Muslims are involved, there can also be a tendency to point fingers at the Qur’an. These knee-jerk reactions are not very helpful, the authors of Scripture and Violence suggest, and can lead to increased polarization in society, as well as unwarranted animosity against Muslims and people of other faiths.

Bringing together scholars from the University of Cambridge and other institutions around the world, the contributors to Scripture and Violence set out to clarify the relationship between violent-sounding passages from the Bible and the Qur’an and the actions of Jews, Christians, and Muslims in the real world. They concluded that there is much less cause for alarm than many people think.

Contrary to popular belief, scriptures are rarely a significant motivating factor when acts of violence occur, the researchers found. One researcher interviewed potential and actual ISIS recruits, and discovered that the Qur’an had not played a significant role in motivating them to join. A desire to be involved in “bad-ass-do-goodery” was much more influential.

Another researcher analysed Muslim debates about suicide attacks, and found that while some Islamic scholars had cited verses from the Qur’an to argue that suicide attacks are permissible in certain limited contexts, other Islamic scholars had used the Qur’an to argue that Muslims are prohibited from carrying out such attacks at all. These scholars all treated the Qur’an as sacred, but they disagreed about what actions were permissible. Political arguments were also much more prominent in the debates than discussion of the Qur’an, which played only a marginal role.

The authors of Scripture and Violence also argue that there is no need to be afraid of scary-looking scriptural passages.

“Some people think that the best strategy for preventing violence is to pretend certain scriptural passages don’t exist,” explains co-editor and New Testament scholar Julia Snyder. “But that’s counterproductive. Instead, find out how people within these religious traditions actually understand these scriptures.

“When the Qur’an or the Bible talks about violence, religious people most often understand that as linked to specific historical contexts. Or they say that very specific conditions would have to be met for violent action to be taken. They don’t think these passages call for violence now – even people who view their scriptures as the Word of God.”

Clearing up misunderstandings about these issues will help overcome existing divisions within society, the researchers hope, and enable people of all faiths and none to focus on tackling urgent economic and social issues together.

“As lockdowns end and societies open up again, and as we seek to rebuild our communities together, it’s important not to let unwarranted anxiety about people of other backgrounds or religious faiths get in the way,” emphasizes co-editor Daniel H. Weiss from Cambridge’s Faculty of Divinity. “This is a great time to let go of polarizing and inaccurate ideas about how religion and scripture actually work. In fact, within these religious traditions, active grappling with tough passages can generate creative new solutions for dealing with present-day concerns.”

According to the researchers, addressing fears about scripture and violence can enable people to recognize other prominent aspects of Muslim, Jewish, and Christian scriptures – such as concern for the underprivileged and an emphasis on justice – and use scripture to reflect and debate together about what a good society would look like.

Scripture and Violence is available from 1 September 2020. Published by Routledge, the book includes contributions from international experts on Jewish, Christian, and Muslim texts and traditions, who discuss key issues in interpretation of the Bible and the Qur’an, and highlight the diverse ways in which Christian, Jewish, and Muslim communities understand scriptural texts. A variety of contexts are visited, from British India to Nazi Germany, from the Jerusalem Pride Parade to American evangelicals and the US military, and from CNN to European university classrooms.


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Combining PCR And Antibody Tests At Point of Care Dramatically Increases COVID-19 Detection In Hospitalised Patients

Man taking COVID-19 test
source: www.cam.ac.uk

A Cambridge hospital as piloted the use of combined rapid point-of-care nucleic acid and antibody testing for SARS-CoV-2 infection after researchers at the University of Cambridge showed that this approach was superior to virus detection alone for diagnosing COVID-19 disease.

 

PCR and antibody tests both have limitations because of the nature of coronavirus infection and how our body responds. But we’ve shown that if you combine them and carry out both at point of care, their reliability can be hugely increased

Ravi Gupta

Point-of-care testing – in other words, testing patients as soon as they arrive at the hospital – is essential for enabling healthcare workers to rapidly diagnose patients and direct those who test positive for infection to dedicated wards. A recent study showed that SAMBA II, a new point-of-care PCR test for SARS-CoV-2 developed by Cambridge researchers, was able to dramatically reduce time spent on COVID-19 ‘holding’ wards – allowing patients to be treated or discharged far quicker than with current lab testing set-ups.

PCR tests involve extracting a miniscule amount of RNA from the virus and copying it millions of times, creating an amount large enough to confirm presence of the virus. The virus is captured through a swab inside the nostrils and at the back of the throat. However, it can take as long as 14 days for an individual to show symptoms of COVID-19, by which time the virus may have moved away from the nose and throat and into the lungs and other tissues and organs, making it harder to detect via a swab test. As a result, studies have shown that PCR tests can miss as many as a half of infected patients five days after infection.

Antibody tests provide an alternative way of identifying infected individuals, but antibodies – molecules produced by our immune system in response to infection – generally do not appear until at least six days after infection.

Professor Ravi Gupta from the Cambridge Institute of Therapeutic Immunology and Infectious Disease at the University of Cambridge said: “We still do not have a gold standard test for diagnosing COVID-19. This poses a challenge to healthcare workers who need to make quick and safe decisions about how and where to treat patients.

“The two main types of test – PCR and antibody tests – both have limitations because of the nature of coronavirus infection and how our body responds. But we’ve shown that if you combine them and carry out both at point of care, their reliability can be hugely increased.”

Professor Gupta led a team that used the approach of combining rapid point-of-care PCR and antibody tests to diagnose 45 patients at Addenbrooke’s Hospital, Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust. The results of this peer-reviewed study are published in Cell Reports Medicine.

The patients, each of whom had suspected moderate to severe COVID-19 disease, provided nose/throat swabs for the tests detecting nucleic acid (virus genetic material) and blood serum for antibody testing an average (median) of seven days after the onset of illness.

The authors designed a gold standard reference test made of two parts, either of which could be positive to confirm COVID-19. The first part was an in vitro test where artificial SARS-CoV-2 viruses were made and mixed with serum from patients to see whether the serum contained neutralising antibodies. The second part of the gold standard was the standard Public Health England laboratory test looking for genetic viral material in nose/throat swabs. Using this gold standard, 24 of the patients had COVID-19.

Professor Gupta’s team used SAMBA II machines, developed by Cambridge spinout company Diagnostics for the Real World, for the nucleic acid tests, and a combination of two finger prick antibody tests, both of which test for antibodies against the spike protein on the surface of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

Overall, the nucleic acid tests could identify eight out of ten patients with COVID-19, but when combined with the rapid antibody tests, 100% of the COVID-19 patients were correctly identified. Among the 21 patients who did not have COVID-19, there were four false positive results with one antibody test and only one false positive with the second antibody test, demonstrating that one performed better than the other.

“Combining point-of-care PCR and antibody testing could be a game-changer for rapidly identifying those patients with moderate to severe COVID-19 infection,” said Professor Gupta. “This could prove extremely useful, particularly in the event of a second wave arising during flu season, when it will not be immediately clear whether the patients had COVID-19 or seasonal flu.”

Professor Gupta envisages that hospitals deploying this approach would carry out a finger prick blood test and nose/throat swab at the same time on admission to hospital. The antibody test result is available within 15 minutes, but might benefit from confirmation with a second point-of-care antibody test. Importantly the study showed that the antibody tests can detect antibodies against a mutated form of SARS-CoV-2, D614G in spike protein, that has now become the dominant strain worldwide.

This approach could be particularly beneficial in low resource settings where centralised virology laboratories are scarce and the pandemic is expanding, said Professor Gupta. In addition, it removes the need for repeated nose/throat swabbing when the first test is negative and suspicion of COVID-19 is high, which may generate aerosols and lead to transmission.

The research was mainly funded by Wellcome and supported by the National Institute for Health Research Cambridge Biomedical Research Centre and the Cambridge Clinical Trials Unit.

Reference
Micochova, P et al. Combined point of care SARS-CoV-2 nucleic acid and antibody testing in suspected moderate to severe COVID-19 disease. Cell Reports Medicine; 1 Sept 2020; DOI: 10.1016/j.xcrm.2020.100099


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Antiretroviral Therapy Fails To Treat One-Third Of HIV Patients In Malawi Hospital

Sign reading "Get Grades Not AIDs"
source: www.cam.ac.uk

 

Antiretroviral therapy (ART) failure and drug resistance are extremely common in patients living with HIV who are admitted to hospital in Malawi, according to new research published in Lancet HIV.

 

These important findings highlight the threat posed by drug resistant HIV and call for rapid tests for drug resistant virus that could aid in determining treatments and interventions for patients in hospital

Ravi Gupta

The observational study involving more than 1,300 people was led by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), University of Malawi College of Medicine and University of Cambridge.

It found most patients admitted to hospital knew their HIV status, and that 90% were taking antiretroviral therapy. However, approximately one-third of patients established on HIV treatment had significant levels of HIV in their blood, and more than 80% of these patients had resistance to two or more of their HIV antiretroviral drugs.

Patients with multidrug resistant HIV were 70% more likely to die within two months of being admitted to hospital than those without drug resistance.

This is the first study reporting such data in hospitalised patients, as access to HIV drug resistance testing is not widely available in high HIV burden African settings.

Dr Ankur Gupta-Wright from LSHTM and project lead said: “There has been an unprecedented scale-up of antiretroviral therapy in high-HIV prevalence settings in sub-Saharan Africa. However, HIV remains a common cause of admission to hospital, with a high risk of death. Our results show drug resistance is an important cause.”

Distinguishing HIV drug resistance from alternative explanations for progressive illness whilst taking antiretroviral (HIV) treatment, such as patients not sticking to required dosage or stopping treatment altogether, is not usually possible. Patients who develop advanced HIV while established on ART often go undetected.

Most available data on HIV drug resistance come from outpatient clinics, where failing HIV treatment is much less common. However, hospitalised patients represent a key target group for intensified interventions, given their relatively high risks of treatment failure, advanced immunosuppression, and high short-term mortality.

This study was based on patients living with HIV who were admitted to hospital in Zomba, southern Malawi. Samples were collected at the time of hospital admission to test for the amount of HIV virus in the blood, to see if patients were responding to their HIV antiretroviral medication.

By sequencing the virus and looking for mutations, patients with high levels of HIV in their blood were tested for resistance to HIV drugs. After two months, the team compared whether patients failing ART and/or with HIV drug resistance were more likely to die.

Of 237 patients with HIV drug resistance results available, 195 (82%) had resistance to lamivudine, 128 (54%) to tenofovir, and 219 (92%) to efavirenz (all first-line drugs used to treat HIV at the time of the study).

Dr Gupta-Wright said: “These are worrying results. ART changes and saves lives, but drug resistance is threatening this progress. Timely diagnosis and management of ART failure and drug resistance in this patient population could improve individual patient outcomes and contribute to the UNAIDS 95-95-95 targets set for 2030. Rapid HIV-1 viral load tests for hospital inpatients need to be implemented, so results are available quickly and patients can be switched to alterative antiretroviral therapy.

“This could potentially save the lives of many patients living with HIV on treatment who are admitted to hospital.”

Professor Ravi Gupta, from Cambridge University and senior author on the study said: ‘’These important findings highlight the threat posed by drug resistant HIV and call for rapid tests for drug resistant virus that could aid in determining treatments and interventions for patients in hospital.’’

The authors acknowledge limitations of this study including the introduction of a new antiretroviral drug in Malawi last year called Dolutegravir, which may overcome some of the resistance found in this study.

The study was funded by the Joint Global Health Trials Scheme of the Medical Research Council, UK Department for International Development, and Wellcome.

Reference
Gupta-Wright, A, et al. Virological failure, HIV-1 drug resistance, and early mortality in adults admitted to hospital in Malawi: an observational cohort study. Lancet HIV; 1 Sept 2020; DOI: 10.1016/S2352-3018(20)30172-7

Adapted from a press release from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine


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New Model Predicts Oesophageal Cancer Eight Years Early For Half Of All Patients

DNA representation
source: www.cam.ac.uk

DNA from tissue biopsies taken from patients with Barrett’s oesophagus – a risk factor for oesophageal cancer – could show which patients are most likely to develop the disease eight years before diagnosis, suggests a study led by researchers at the University of Cambridge and EMBL’s European Bioinformatics Institute (EMBL-EBI).

 

Our research shows the power of genomic medicine for the early detection of cancer

Sarah Killcoyne

Oesophageal cancer is often preceded by Barrett’s oesophagus, a condition in which cells within the lining of the oesophagus begin to change shape and can grow abnormally. The cellular changes are cause by acid and bile reflux – when the stomach juices come back up the gullet.

Barrett’s oesophagus and oesophageal cancer are diagnosed using biopsies, which look for signs of dysplasia, the proliferation of abnormal cancer cells. Between one and five people in every 100 with Barrett’s oesophagus will go on to develop oesophageal cancer in their life-time, but as this type of cancer can be difficult to treat, particularly if not caught early enough, researchers have been trying to identify ways to catch the disease early.

Professor Rebecca Fitzgerald from the MRC Cancer Unit at the University of Cambridge said: “Early diagnosis of cancer is one of the best strategies to improve patient survival and decrease the side-effects from treatments. However, this strategy can result in overtreatment – patients incorrectly identified as high-risk and given unnecessary treatments. We need to find new ways to accurately spot cancer progression at a very early stage to help us identify those patients at greatest risk.”

A phenomenon commonly seen in the DNA of tumours – but not in healthy tissues – is one whereby whole ‘chunks’ of DNA are either deleted or repeated several times as cells copy and multiply. These are known as ‘copy number alterations’. In a study published today in Nature Medicine, researchers at Cambridge have shown how these DNA ‘signals’ could help diagnose patients earlier.

The team used whole genome sequencing to analyse 777 samples from 88 patients and compared their DNA against that from control samples collected during clinical surveillance for Barrett’s oesophagus. They were looking for differences in the DNA between the patients who were eventually diagnosed with cancer versus those who were not.

The researchers found that the genomes in samples from individual patients who went on to develop cancer tended to have a higher number of copy number alterations, and that the number and complexity of such alterations increased over time. They used this information to develop a statistical model that could predict whether a patient was at a high or low risk of cancer from a single, tiny biopsy sample taken years before. The model was then used to predict and classify risks for individuals in a validation cohort of 76 patients and 213 samples.

The model accurately predicted oesophageal cancer eight years before diagnosis for half of all patients who went on to develop the disease. This increased to more than three-quarters of patients one to two years before a diagnosis.

Equally importantly, the model accurately and consistently predicted patients who were at a low risk of developing cancer over many years of clinical surveillance. This meant that these patients did not need to be subjected to regular, invasive monitoring or treatment.

The researchers found a high degree of variability in copy number alternations even within a single biopsy, but even so, the model provided surprisingly stable predictions of a patient’s risk of progression to cancer.

Dr Sarah Killcoyne from the MRC Cancer Unit at the University of Cambridge and EMBL-EBI, joint first author, said: “Our research shows the power of genomic medicine for the early detection of cancer. We combined low-cost sequencing of standard tissue biopsies with statistical modelling to identify which patients were at greatest risk of progressing from Barrett’s oesophagus to oesophageal cancer.”

Eleanor Gregson from the MRC Cancer Unit, joint first author, added: “This new approach could allow us to intervene earlier, helping improve a patient’s outcome, while at the same time avoiding the need for low-risk individuals to have regular and invasive monitoring or even unnecessary treatment.”

The research was funded by the Medical Research Council and United European Gastroenterology, with support from the National Institute for Health Research Cambridge Biomedical Research Centre.

Reference
Killcoyne, S. et al. Genomic copy number predicts esophageal cancer years before transformation. Nat Med; 7 Sept 2020; DOI: 10.1038/s41591-020-1033-y


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‘Wild West’ Mentality Lingers In US Mountain Regions

source: www.cam.ac.uk

Distinct psychological mix associated with mountain populations is consistent with the theory that harsh frontiers attracted certain personalities.

 

This psychological fingerprint for mountainous areas may be an echo of the personality types that sought new lives in unknown territories

Friedrich Götz

When historian Frederick Jackson Turner presented his famous thesis on the US frontier in 1893, he described the “coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and acquisitiveness” it had forged in the American character.

Now, well into the 21st century, and researchers led by the University of Cambridge have detected remnants of the pioneer personality in US populations of once inhospitable mountainous territory, particularly in the Midwest.

A team of scientists algorithmically investigated how landscape shapes psychology. They analysed links between the anonymised results of an online personality test completed by over 3.3 million Americans, and the “topography” of 37,227 US postal – or ZIP – codes.

The researchers found that living at both a higher altitude and an elevation relative to the surrounding region – indicating “hilliness” – is associated with a distinct blend of personality traits that fits with “frontier settlement theory”.

“The harsh and remote environment of mountainous frontier regions historically attracted nonconformist settlers strongly motivated by a sense of freedom,” said researcher Friedrich Götz, from Cambridge’s Department of Psychology.

“Such rugged terrain likely favoured those who closely guarded their resources and distrusted strangers, as well as those who engaged in risky explorations to secure food and territory.”

“These traits may have distilled over time into an individualism characterised by toughness and self-reliance that lies at the heart of the American frontier ethos” said Götz, lead author of the study.

“When we look at personality across the whole United States, we find that mountainous residents are more likely to have psychological characteristics indicative of this frontier mentality.”

Götz worked with colleagues from the Karl Landsteiner University of Health Sciences, Austria, the University of Texas, US, the University of Melbourne in Australia, and his Cambridge supervisor Dr Jason Rentfrow. The findings are published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour.

The research uses the “Big Five” personality model, standard in social psychology, with simple online tests providing high-to-low scores for five fundamental personality traits of millions of Americans.

The mix of characteristics uncovered by study’s authors consists of low levels of “agreeableness”, suggesting mountainous residents are less trusting and forgiving – traits that benefit “territorial, self-focused survival strategies”.

Low levels of “extraversion” reflect the introverted self-reliance required to thrive in secluded areas, and a low level of “conscientiousness” lends itself to rebelliousness and indifference to rules, say researchers.

“Neuroticism” is also lower, suggesting an emotional stability and assertiveness suited to frontier living. However, “openness to experience” is much higher, and the most pronounced personality trait in mountain dwellers.

“Openness is a strong predictor of residential mobility,” said Götz. “A willingness to move your life in pursuit of goals such as economic affluence and personal freedom drove many original North American frontier settlers.”

“Taken together, this psychological fingerprint for mountainous areas may be an echo of the personality types that sought new lives in unknown territories.”

The researchers wanted to distinguish between the direct effects of physical environment and the “sociocultural influence” of growing up where frontier values and identities still hold sway.

To do this, they looked at whether mountainous personality patterns applied to people born and raised in these regions that had since moved away.

The findings suggest some “initial enculturation” say researchers, as those who left their early mountain home are still consistently less agreeable, conscientious and extravert, although no such effects were observed for neuroticism and openness.

The scientists also divided the country at the edge of St. Louis – “gateway to the West” – to see if there is a personality difference between those in mountains that made up the historic frontier, such as the Rockies, and eastern ranges e.g. the Appalachians.

While mountains continue to be a “meaningful predictor” of personality type on both sides of this divide, key differences emerged. Those in the east are more agreeable and outgoing, while western ranges are a closer fit for frontier settlement theory.

In fact, the mountainous effect on high levels of “openness to experience” is ten times as strong in residents of the old western frontier as in those of the eastern ranges.

The findings suggest that, while ecological effects are important, it is the lingering sociocultural effects – the stories, attitudes and education – in the former “Wild West” that are most powerful in shaping mountainous personality, according to scientists.

They describe the effect of mountain areas on personality as “small but robust”, but argue that complex psychological phenomena are influenced by many hundreds of factors, so small effects are to be expected.

“Small effects can make a big difference at scale,” said Götz. “An increase of one standard deviation in mountainousness is associated with a change of around 1% in personality.”

“Over hundreds of thousands of people, such an increase would translate into highly consequential political, economic, social and health outcomes.”


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Wireless Device Makes Clean Fuel From Sunlight, CO2 and Water

Dr Qian Wang

source: cam.ac.uk

 

Researchers have developed a standalone device that converts sunlight, carbon dioxide and water into a carbon-neutral fuel, without requiring any additional components or electricity.

 

We hope this technology will pave the way toward sustainable and practical solar fuel production

Erwin Reisner

The device, developed by a team from the University of Cambridge, is a significant step toward achieving artificial photosynthesis – a process mimicking the ability of plants to convert sunlight into energy. It is based on an advanced ‘photosheet’ technology and converts sunlight, carbon dioxide and water into oxygen and formic acid – a storable fuel that can be either be used directly or be converted into hydrogen.

The results, reported in the journal Nature Energy, represent a new method for the conversion of carbon dioxide into clean fuels. The wireless device could be scaled up and used on energy ‘farms’ similar to solar farms, producing clean fuel using sunlight and water.

Harvesting solar energy to convert carbon dioxide into fuel is a promising way to reduce carbon emissions and transition away from fossil fuels. However, it is challenging to produce these clean fuels without unwanted by-products.

“It’s been difficult to achieve artificial photosynthesis with a high degree of selectivity, so that you’re converting as much of the sunlight as possible into the fuel you want, rather than be left with a lot of waste,” said first author Dr Qian Wang from Cambridge’s Department of Chemistry.

“In addition, storage of gaseous fuels and separation of by-products can be complicated – we want to get to the point where we can cleanly produce a liquid fuel that can also be easily stored and transported,” said Professor Erwin Reisner, the paper’s senior author.

In 2019, researchers from Reisner’s group developed a solar reactor based on an ‘artificial leaf’ design, which also uses sunlight, carbon dioxide and water to produce a fuel, known as syngas. The new technology looks and behaves quite similarly to the artificial leaf but works in a different way and produces formic acid.

While the artificial leaf used components from solar cells, the new device doesn’t require these components and relies solely on photocatalysts embedded on a sheet to produce a so-called photocatalyst sheet. The sheets are made up of semiconductor powders, which can be prepared in large quantities easily and cost-effectively.

In addition, this new technology is more robust and produces clean fuel that is easier to store and shows potential for producing fuel products at scale. The test unit is 20 square centimetres in size, but the researchers say that it should be relatively straightforward to scale it up to several square metres. In addition, the formic acid can be accumulated in solution, and be chemically converted into different types of fuel.

“We were surprised how well it worked in terms of its selectivity – it produced almost no by-products,” said Wang. “Sometimes things don’t work as well as you expected, but this was a rare case where it actually worked better.”

The carbon-dioxide converting cobalt-based catalyst is easy to make and relatively stable. While this technology will be easier to scale up than the artificial leaf, the efficiencies still need to be improved before any commercial deployment can be considered. The researchers are experimenting with a range of different catalysts to improve both stability and efficiency.

The current results were obtained in collaboration with the team of Professor Kazunari Domen from the University of Tokyo, a co-author of the study.

The researchers are now working to further optimise the system and improve efficiency. Additionally, they are exploring other catalysts for using on the device to get different solar fuels.

“We hope this technology will pave the way toward sustainable and practical solar fuel production,” said Reisner.

Reference:
Qian Wang et al. ‘Molecularly engineered photocatalyst sheet for scalable solar formate production from carbon dioxide and water.’ Nature Energy (2020). DOI: 10.1038/s41560-020-0678-6

 

A bold response to the world’s greatest challenge
The University of Cambridge is building on its existing research and launching an ambitious new environment and climate change initiative. Cambridge Zero is not just about developing greener technologies. It will harness the full power of the University’s research and policy expertise, developing solutions that work for our lives, our society and our biosphere.


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New Insights into Lithium-Ion Battery Failure Mechanism

source: cam.ac.uk

 

Researchers have identified a potential new degradation mechanism for electric vehicle batteries – a key step to designing effective methods to improve battery lifespan.

 

The researchers, from the Universities of Cambridge and Liverpool, and the Diamond Light Source, have identified one of the reasons why state-of-the-art ‘nickel-rich’ battery materials become fatigued, and can no longer be fully charged after prolonged use.

Their results, reported in the journal Nature Materials, open the door to the development of new strategies to improve battery lifespans.

As part of efforts to combat climate change, many countries have announced ambitious plans to replace petrol or diesel vehicles with electric vehicles (EVs) by 2050 or earlier.

The lithium-ion batteries used by EVs are likely to dominate the EV market for the foreseeable future, and nickel-rich lithium transition-metal oxides are the state-of-the-art choice for the positive electrode, or cathode, in these batteries.

Currently, most EV batteries contain significant amounts of cobalt in their cathode materials. However, cobalt can cause severe environmental damage, so researchers have been looking to replace it with nickel, which also offers higher practical capacities than cobalt. However, nickel-rich materials degrade much faster than existing technology and require additional study to be commercially viable for applications such as EVs.

“Unlike consumable electronics which typically have lifetimes of only a few years, vehicles are expected to last much longer and therefore it is essential to increase the lifetime of an EV battery,” said Dr Chao Xu from Cambridge’s Department of Chemistry, and the first author of the article. “That’s why a comprehensive, in-depth understanding of how they work and why they fail over a long time is crucial to improving their performance.”

To monitor the changes of the battery materials in real time over several months of battery testing, the researchers used laser technology to design a new coin cell, also known as button cell. “This design offers a new possibility of studying degradation mechanisms over a long period of cycling for many battery chemistries,” said Xu. During the study, the researchers found that a proportion of the cathode material becomes fatigued after repetitive charging and discharging of the cell, and the amount of the fatigued material increases as the cycling continues.

Xu and his colleagues dived deep into the structure of the material at the atomic scale to seek answers as to why such fatigue process occurs. “In order to fully function, battery materials need to expand and shrink as the lithium ions move in and out,” said Xu. “However, after prolonged use, we found that the atoms at the surface of the material had rearranged to form new structures that are no longer able to store energy.”

What’s worse is that these areas of reconstructed surface apparently act as stakes that pin the rest of the material in place and prevent it from the contraction which is required to reach the fully charged state. As a result, the lithium remains stuck in the lattice and this fatigued material can hold less charge.

With this knowledge, the researchers are now seeking effective countermeasures, such as protective coatings and functional electrolyte additives, to mitigate this degradation process and extend the lifetime of such batteries.

The research, led by Professor Clare P Grey from the Chemistry Department at Cambridge, has been supported by the Faraday Institution Degradation Project.

Reference:
Chao Xu et al. ‘Bulk fatigue induced by surface reconstruction in layered Ni-rich cathodes for Li-ion batteries.’ Nature Materials (2020). DOI: 10.1038/s41563-020-0767-8


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‘Stay Safe Cambridge Uni’ Public Health Campaign Launched

source: cam.ac.uk

 

In advance of the new academic year, the University of Cambridge has launched an information campaign, webpages and a series of short films to help students and staff minimise the risks to themselves and others from the COVID-19 pandemic.

 

This academic year will be unlike any other, and it will be challenging for all of us, but we will do everything we can to make sure our students feel safe and supported while they are here

Vice-Chancellor Professor Stephen Toope

The ‘Stay Safe Cambridge Uni’ campaign has been developed by University, College and student representatives, and is based on the latest public health guidance. Additionally, Dr Simone Schnall from the Department of Psychology surveyed students and staff from across the University and Colleges to determine which messages were most effective.

A variety of resources, including University-specific guidance, and videos, are being made available to new and returning students and staff, to support them in keeping themselves, the University and the city as safe as possible during the pandemic.

Most of the measures being put in place by the University and Colleges will be familiar as part of a plan to reduce the risk of community spread of the coronavirus. Face coverings will be required in most buildings, and social distancing for people from different households will be encouraged. For most Colleges, a household will be classified as students living together and sharing communal facilities, such as toilets and showers. The University and Colleges will also advise students of their responsibilities while out and about in Cambridge and keep them up to date on the latest public health guidance.

The University has its own dedicated COVID-19 testing capacity, which is free to any member of the University displaying symptoms, along with members of their household. Testing is currently available at either Addenbrooke’s Hospital or the Department of Engineering.

“This year’s group of students – whether they are coming to Cambridge for the first time or returning to continue their studies – have been through an incredibly stressful few months, both because of the disruption caused by the pandemic and the confusion around exam results,” said Vice-Chancellor Professor Stephen Toope. “This academic year will be unlike any other, and it will be challenging for all of us, but we will do everything we can to make sure our students feel safe and supported while they are here.”

“We don’t yet know how long we will all be living with COVID-19, but we do know that our success in controlling the virus will depend on everyone playing their part,” said Professor Graham Virgo, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Education. “We all have a responsibility to minimise the spread of COVID-19. We are members of a wider community and take our responsibility to others in Cambridge and beyond very seriously.”

The ‘Stay Safe Cambridge Uni’ campaign has been developed to complement Cambridge City Council’s ‘Stay Safe Cambridge’ campaign, which was introduced following the relaxation of lockdown in early July.

Cllr Lewis Herbert, Leader of Cambridge City Council, said: “The successful and safe return of students and university staff to Cambridge this autumn is vital for them and for our whole city. We have, as councils, been working in close partnership with our universities, so that everything is in place to protect people and to share sound advice to newcomers.

“Ensuring younger people keep safe as well as have fun and make the most of their time in Cambridge will boost our local fight to beat coronavirus and avoid the ongoing risks of both a fresh surge and the need for a lockdown in Cambridge. This is why we unequivocally endorse the efforts of our two University #StaySafe campaigns and the considerable thought and planning taking place, so that we and everyone in Cambridge can successfully deliver our #StaySafeCambridge campaign.”

Many postgraduate students, especially those whose research is lab-based, have already returned to Cambridge. Most undergraduate students will return at the start of Michaelmas term, which begins on 8 October. Many Colleges will be staggering student arrivals, so that social distancing can be maintained, especially for Colleges based in the city centre.

The Stay Safe Cambridge Uni webpages can be found at: www.cam.ac.uk/staysafecambridgeuni.


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Cambridge Takes Major Role in Initiative to Help Solve UK ‘Productivity Puzzle’

source: cam.ac.uk

 

The University is to be a key partner in a new national effort to boost British productivity, bringing together expertise to tackle questions of job creation, sustainability and wellbeing, as the UK looks to its post-pandemic future.

 

Productivity is key to the creation of decent work and the provision of high quality education and healthcare

Diane Coyle

The University of Cambridge is one of the partners in a major new £32.4m Productivity Institute, announced today by the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. It is the largest economic and social research investment ever in the UK.

Productivity – the way ideas and labour are transformed into products and services that benefit society – has been lacklustre in the UK over recent decades, with limited growth stalled further by the global financial crisis of 2008-9 and the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

To address the urgent challenge, the new Institute will bring together institutions and researchers from across the country to tackle questions of job creation, sustainability and wellbeing, as the UK looks to a post-pandemic future full of technological and environmental upheaval.

Professor Diane Coyle, co-director of the University’s Bennett Institute for Public Policy will be one of the new Institute’s Directors and leading one of its eight major research themes. She will be heading up the strand on Knowledge Capital: the ideas that drive productivity and progress.

Professor Anna Vignoles from Cambridge’s Faculty of Education will helm another of the main research strands, on Human Capital: the cultivation of people’s skills and abilities. Both lead academics will be supported by a host of other Cambridge researchers from a variety of departments, including POLIS, Psychology, Economics, and the Institute for Manufacturing.

The Productivity Institute will be headquartered at the University of Manchester, and, along with Cambridge, other members of the leading consortium include the National Institute of Economic and Social Research and the universities of Glasgow, Sheffield, Cardiff and Warwick. The new Institute is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (part of UK Research and Innovation).

“Productivity is economic jargon for something fundamentally important,” said Professor Coyle. “This is the question of what will enable people’s lives everywhere to improve sustainably over time, ensuring new technologies, along with business and policy choices, bring widespread benefits.”

“Productivity is key to the creation of decent work and the provision of high quality education and healthcare. Its growth offers people sustainable improvements in their standard of living,” she said.

The Knowledge Capital theme, led by Coyle, will investigate the way that ideas and know-how – “intangible assets” not easily defined or measured – permeate our society and the economy.

“We want to understand better the links between productivity and things that are important but hard to pin down, whether that’s how businesses adopt new technologies and ideas or the role of social networks in determining how well different areas perform,” said Coyle.

Professor Vignoles will lead a team considering the importance of individuals’ wellbeing and productivity, which will include Cambridge psychologist Dr Simone Schnall. It remains an open question as to whether greater wellbeing can increase the productivity of individuals, and what the implications of this might be for both national policy and firms’ strategies.

“Increasing productivity is a pressing priority for the UK and understanding whether policies to improve individuals’ wellbeing are also likely to improve their productivity is crucial,” Professor Vignoles said.

The fulcrum for Cambridge’s involvement in the new Productivity Institute will be the University’s recently established Bennett Institute for Public Policy, where Professor Coyle is based.

Since its launch in 2018, the Bennett Institute has been concentrating on the “challenges posed by the productivity puzzle” in the UK, says the Institute’s Director Professor Michael Kenny, with a focus on ensuring notions of “place” are brought to the fore.

“We are delighted to be contributing to this major new initiative,” said Kenny. “Under the leadership of Professor Coyle, we have been working to understand the many different factors and dynamics which explain the well-springs of, and obstacles to, productivity growth.”

Professor Stephen Toope, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, said: “I am thrilled that the University will be playing a pivotal role in the new Productivity Institute.”

“The knowledge generated by universities such as ours is a fuel for productivity, and will be fundamental to the resilience of the United Kingdom, and the opportunities afforded its citizens, in a post-pandemic world.”

Science Minister Amanda Solloway said: “Improving productivity is central to driving forward our long-term economic recovery and ensuring that we level up wages and living standards across every part of the UK.”


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