All posts by Adam Brinded

‘Stressed’ Cells Offer Clues To Eliminating Build-Up Of Toxic Proteins in Dementia

Nurse taking care of elderly sick woman in wheelchair
source: www.cam.ac.uk

 

It’s often said that a little stress can be good for you. Now scientists have shown that the same may be true for cells, uncovering a newly-discovered mechanism that might help prevent the build-up of tangles of proteins commonly seen in dementia.

 

We were astonished to find that stressing the cell actually eliminated the aggregates – not by degrading them or clearing them out, but by unravelling the aggregates, potentially allowing them to refold correctly

Edward Avezov

A characteristic of diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s – collectively known as neurodegenerative diseases – is the build-up of misfolded proteins. These proteins, such as amyloid and tau in Alzheimer’s disease, form ‘aggregates’ that can cause irreversible damage to nerve cells in the brain.

Protein folding is a normal process in the body, and in healthy individuals, cells carry out a form of quality control to ensure that proteins are correctly folded and that misfolded proteins are destroyed. But in neurodegenerative diseases, this system becomes impaired, with potentially devastating consequences.

As the global population ages, an increasing number of people are being diagnosed with dementia, making the search for effective drugs ever more urgent. However, progress has been slow, with no medicines yet available that can prevent or remove the build-up of aggregates.

In a study published today in Nature Communications, a team led by scientists at the UK Dementia Research Institute, University of Cambridge, has identified a new mechanism that appears to reverse the build-up of aggregates, not by eliminating them completely, but rather by ‘refolding’ them.

“Just like when we get stressed by a heavy workload, so, too, cells can get ‘stressed’ if they’re called upon to produce a large amount of proteins,” explained Dr Edward Avezov from the UK Dementia Research Institute at the University of Cambridge.

“There are many reasons why this might be, for example when they are producing antibodies in response to an infection. We focused on stressing a component of cells known as the endoplasmic reticulum, which is responsible for producing around a third of our proteins – and assumed that this stress might cause misfolding.”

The endoplasmic reticulum (ER) is a membrane structure found in mammalian cells. It carries out a number of important functions, including the synthesis, folding, modification and transport of proteins needed on the surface or outside the cell. Dr Avezov and colleagues hypothesised that stressing the ER might lead to protein misfolding and aggregation by diminishing its ability to function correctly, leading to increased aggregation.

They were surprised to discover the opposite was true.

“We were astonished to find that stressing the cell actually eliminated the aggregates – not by degrading them or clearing them out, but by unravelling the aggregates, potentially allowing them to refold correctly,” said Dr Avezov.

“If we can find a way of awakening this mechanism without stressing the cells – which could cause more damage than good – then we might be able to find a way of treating some dementias.”

The main component of this mechanism appears to be one of a class of proteins known as heat shock proteins (HSPs), more of which are made when cells are exposed to temperatures above their normal growth temperature, and in response to stress.

Dr Avezov speculates that this might help explain one of the more unusual observations within the field of dementia research. “There have been some studies recently of people in Scandinavian countries who regularly use saunas, suggesting that they may be at lower risk of developing dementia. One possible explanation for this is that this mild stress triggers a higher activity of HSPs, helping correct tangled proteins.”

One of the factors that has previous hindered this field of research has been the inability to visualise these processes in live cells. Working with teams from Pennsylvania State University and the University of Algarve, the team has developed a technique that allows them to detect protein misfolding in live cells. It relies on measuring light patterns of a glowing chemical over a scale of nanoseconds – one billionth of a second.

“It’s fascinating how measuring our probe’s fluorescence lifetime on the nanoseconds scale under a laser-powered microscope makes the otherwise invisible aggregates inside the cell obvious,” said Professor Eduardo Melo, one of the leading authors, from the University of Algarve, Portugal.

The research was supported by the UK Dementia Research Institute, which receives its funding from the Medical Research Council, Alzheimer’s Society and Alzheimer’s Research UK, as well as the Portuguese Foundation for Science and Technology.

Reference
Melo, EP, et al. Stress-induced protein disaggregation in the Endoplasmic Reticulum catalysed by BiP. Nature Comms; 6 May 2022; DOI: 10.1038/s41467-022-30238-2


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.

Professor Stephen J Toope To Lead Global Research Organisation

source: www.cam.ac.uk

 

Professor Stephen J Toope will become the next President and CEO of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR) after completing his five-year term of office as Vice-Chancellor at the University of Cambridge.

 

While I look forward to this new challenge, I am immensely proud of what we as a university community have achieved in a remarkable five years.

Professor Stephen J Toope, Vice-Chancellor

Based in Toronto, and working across national and disciplinary boundaries, CIFAR brings together some of the world’s best researchers to address the most pressing and complex issues facing individuals and societies.

Under Professor Toope’s leadership at Cambridge, sustainability and widening student access have been key areas of focus for the University, with several new and exciting research and teaching initiatives launched. These include the ambitious climate initiative Cambridge Zero, and the creation of the landmark Cambridge Foundation Year. Professor Toope has also led the university sector in pushing towards a carbon-neutral endowment fund, and has overseen remarkable progress on a £500 million Student Support Initiative. During his tenure, the “Dear World… Yours, Cambridge” fundraising campaign for the collegiate University surpassed its £2 billion target. He has guided the University through a global pandemic and into a programme of recovery that will help build the Cambridge of the future.

Professor Toope said: “CIFAR is an extraordinary organisation, and I am honoured to be offered this opportunity to lead it. While I look forward to this new challenge, I am immensely proud of what we as a university community have achieved in a remarkable five years. The University of Cambridge is without question a force for good in the world. It has been a great privilege to work with so many gifted people carrying out such extraordinary work.”

Professor Toope will take on the new role from 1 November 2022. The process to recruit a new Vice-Chancellor is under way.


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.

Programmes To Host Scholars and Students Affected By The War On Ukraine

source: www.cam.ac.uk

The humanitarian tragedy unfolding in Ukraine continues to galvanise our community. Led by the Ukraine Taskforce, the Collegiate University has developed a number of programmes to support scholars and students affected by the war.

 

I know many within the University have worked tirelessly to put these programmes in place

Kamal Munir

In October, the University hopes to welcome upwards of 20 students affected by the war on Ukraine. They will be funded by a range of scholarships including The Rowan Williams Cambridge Studentship, which is a programme established by the Cambridge Trust to support undergraduate and postgraduate students applying to study at Cambridge from a conflict zone.

The Rowan Williams Scholarships will be fully-funded covering tuition fees and maintenance and will also assist with students’ upfront expenses such as travel, visa costs and the immigration health surcharge. The Cambridge Trust is working with other funders to maximise the number of offers we can make. All recipients of these funds must have a conditional offer from the University to be considered for funding.

The School of Clinical Medicine has made a twinning agreement with Kharkiv National Medical University to accept medical students on six week clinical placements in Cambridge. Students will be placed at either Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust or Cambridgeshire and Peterborough NHS Foundation Trust. Each student will be hosted by a member of the University or one of the hospitals, who have volunteered to provide accommodation during their visit. Ten students will take part initially, with further cohorts expected to follow. The first students are expected to arrive within the next one to two months, subject to the government granting visiting visas.

The Collegiate University has so far submitted two applications to the British Academy and Council for At-Risk Academics (Cara) Researchers at Risk Fellowship Scheme. If successful, the fellowships will bring two scholars and their dependents to Cambridge for up to two years. These applications were generously supported by Darwin College and Trinity College.

The University is also in conversations with Ukrainian institutions to establish non-residential scholarships for up to fifteen Ukrainian scholars who have been displaced by the war and are living in Ukraine or neighbouring countries. The scholarships will provide a stipend, formal links to Cambridge academics and remote access to resources that will enable them to continue academic study.

Some 21 students currently studying in Cambridge have been identified as having been directly affected by the war. They are being supported through the University’s Ukrainian Conflict Student Hardship Fund.

In response to conversations with Ukrainian university representatives, the University Library and Cambridge University Press and Assessment are identifying specific ways in which they can assist in partnership with their national professional bodies. Cambridge University Press and Assessment has made the majority of its academic journal content free to institutions registered in Ukraine.

Additional programmes are in development, and the University remains ready to sponsor and host displaced doctoral students and academic staff as soon as the government visa scheme enables the University to act as a visa sponsor. Thank you to those University institutions that have come forward with offers of support.

“I have been heartened by the generosity displayed by colleagues across Cambridge who have raised funds or proposed activities to support those affected by the tragic war on Ukraine,” said Professor Kamal Munir, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for University Community and Engagement. “I know many within the University have worked tirelessly to put these programmes in place and we will continue to identify opportunities for the Collegiate University to provide further support in the medium to long-term.”


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.

Protected Areas Saw Dramatic Spikes In Fires During COVID Lockdowns, Study Finds

source: www.cam.ac.uk

 

Scientists suggest that some staffing of protected areas should be considered “essential services” in future crises.

 

When all staff were pulled out of protected areas in March 2020 the fires spiked dramatically

Andrew Balmford

The number of fires inside protected conservation areas across the island of Madagascar shot up dramatically when COVID-19 lockdowns led to the suspension of any on-site management for five months during 2020.

The findings suggest that governments should consider keeping some staff in protected areas at all times as an “essential service”, even during periods of health crisis and travel restriction, argue the scientists behind the study.

They say that more attention must be paid to the management of protected areas, not just expanding their coverage, at the long-delayed convention to set international biodiversity goals later this year.

Madagascar is a renowned biodiversity “hotspot”, home to species such as its famous lemur populations that don’t exist anywhere else. The island is also a frontline in the fight between wildlife protection and habitat loss.

The study, published today in Nature Sustainability, is the first to gauge the effects of the pandemic on protected conservation areas.

An international team of scientists led by Cambridge and Helsinki universities used historical and contemporary fire and weather data to predict rates of burning in Madagascar’s protected areas for every month during 2012-2020.

They compared this data modelling to counts of actual blazes collected by satellites to detect periods when fires raged far beyond what might be expected from the climate and previous patterns of burning.

When the first lockdowns of 2020 halted the on-site management of protected areas, the numbers of fires – much of it in threatened forest habitat – soared by 209% in March, 223% in April, 78% in May, 248% in June and 76% in July.

However, burning quickly returned to normal levels as predicted by the modelling once management operations resumed – despite continued border closures and economic hardships as a result of the ongoing pandemic.

Researchers describe this scale of burning inside protected areas as “unprecedented” in recent Malagasy history. The only comparable periods were during two spells of civil unrest in 2013 and 2018 in the run-up to elections, but even then the fieriest month was just a 134% increase in burning.

“The disruption caused by COVID-19 clearly demonstrates the dramatic impact that interruptions to the management of protected areas can have on habitats,” said senior author Prof Andrew Balmford from the University of Cambridge.

“Over the last twenty years, excess fires in Malagasy protected areas have been limited to occasional blocks of one or two months.

“When all staff were pulled out of protected areas in March 2020 the fires spiked dramatically and continued at a ferocious level for an unprecedented five months, falling away exactly as staff started to return,” he said.

While the team says they cannot know for sure what caused all the fires during the early months of COVID-19, lead author Dr Johanna Eklund from the University of Helsinki said that local communities already struggling economically would have come under further pressure from lockdowns.

“Madagascar has very high rates of poverty, and has a history of conflict between the livelihoods of vulnerable people and saving unique biodiversity,” said Eklund, currently a visiting researcher at Cambridge.

“The pandemic increased economic insecurity for many, so it would not be surprising if this led some to encroach on protected lands while on-site management activities were on hold.”

Eklund suggests that a lack of on-site patrolling to prevent any fires from spreading combined with communities resorting to “swidden” – or slash-and-burn – agriculture may be behind much of the spike in lockdown fires. These techniques clear vegetation for crops and cattle-grazing but are illegal inside protected areas.

“Importantly, the study did not measure fires outside conservation sites, so we cannot measure how much protected areas actually mitigated burning compared to areas without protection,” Eklund said.

The team used imaging data from NASA satellite systems capable of detecting “thermal anomalies” and noted for near real-time fire management alerts.

Eklund, who has conducted research in Madagascar for close to a decade, realised she could still remotely assist those protecting the forests. “Satellites pick up fires really well and show where protected areas are under pressure.”

Co-author Domoina Rakotobe, former coordinator for the Malagasy organisation Forum Lafa, the network of terrestrial protected area managers, added: “The high levels of burning during the lockdowns clearly shows the value of on-the-ground management, with protected area teams working with communities to support local livelihoods and safeguard natural resources.”


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.

Taste of The Future: Robot Chef Learns To ‘Taste As You Go’

 

A robot ‘chef’ has been trained to taste food at different stages of the chewing process to assess whether it’s sufficiently seasoned.

 

If robots are to be used for certain aspects of food preparation, it’s important that they are able to ‘taste’ what they’re cooking

Grzegorz Sochacki

Working in collaboration with domestic appliances manufacturer Beko, researchers from the University of Cambridge trained their robot chef to assess the saltiness of a dish at different stages of the chewing process, imitating a similar process in humans.

Their results could be useful in the development of automated or semi-automated food preparation by helping robots to learn what tastes good and what doesn’t, making them better cooks.

When we chew our food, we notice a change in texture and taste. For example, biting into a fresh tomato at the height of summer will release juices, and as we chew, releasing both saliva and digestive enzymes, our perception of the tomato’s flavour will change.

The robot chef, which has already been trained to make omelettes based on human taster’s feedback, tasted nine different variations of a simple dish of scrambled eggs and tomatoes at three different stages of the chewing process, and produced ‘taste maps’ of the different dishes.

The researchers found that this ‘taste as you go’ approach significantly improved the robot’s ability to quickly and accurately assess the saltiness of the dish over other electronic tasting technologies, which only test a single homogenised sample. The results are reported in the journal Frontiers in Robotics & AI.

The perception of taste is a complex process in humans that has evolved over millions of years: the appearance, smell, texture and temperature of food all affect how we perceive taste; the saliva produced during chewing helps carry chemical compounds in food to taste receptors mostly on the tongue; and the signals from taste receptors are passed to the brain. Once our brains are aware of the flavour, we decide whether we enjoy the food or not.

Taste is also highly individual: some people love spicy food, while others have a sweet tooth. A good cook, whether amateur or professional, relies on their sense of taste, and can balance the various flavours within a dish to make a well-rounded final product.

“Most home cooks will be familiar with the concept of tasting as you go – checking a dish throughout the cooking process to check whether the balance of flavours is right,” said Grzegorz Sochacki from Cambridge’s Department of Engineering, the paper’s first author. “If robots are to be used for certain aspects of food preparation, it’s important that they are able to ‘taste’ what they’re cooking.”

“When we taste, the process of chewing also provides continuous feedback to our brains,” said co-author Dr Arsen Abdulali, also from the Department of Engineering. “Current methods of electronic testing only take a single snapshot from a homogenised sample, so we wanted to replicate a more realistic process of chewing and tasting in a robotic system, which should result in a tastier end product.”

The researchers are members of Cambridge’s Bio-Inspired Robotics Laboratory run by Professor Fumiya Iida of the Department of Engineering, which focuses on training robots to carry out the so-called last metre problems which humans find easy, but robots find difficult. Cooking is one of these tasks: earlier tests with their robot ‘chef’ have produced a passable omelette using feedback from human tasters.

“We needed something cheap, small and fast to add to our robot so it could do the tasting: it needed to be cheap enough to use in a kitchen, small enough for a robot, and fast enough to use while cooking,” said Sochacki.

To imitate the human process of chewing and tasting in their robot chef, the researchers attached a conductance probe, which acts as a salinity sensor, to a robot arm. They prepared scrambled eggs and tomatoes, varying the number of tomatoes and the amount of salt in each dish.

Using the probe, the robot ‘tasted’ the dishes in a grid-like fashion, returning a reading in just a few seconds.

To imitate the change in texture caused by chewing, the team then put the egg mixture in a blender and had the robot test the dish again. The different readings at different points of ‘chewing’ produced taste maps of each dish.

Their results showed a significant improvement in the ability of robots to assess saltiness over other electronic tasting methods, which are often time-consuming and only provide a single reading.

While their technique is a proof of concept, the researchers say that by imitating the human processes of chewing and tasting, robots will eventually be able to produce food that humans will enjoy and could be tweaked according to individual tastes.

“When a robot is learning how to cook, like any other cook, it needs indications of how well it did,” said Abdulali. “We want the robots to understand the concept of taste, which will make them better cooks. In our experiment, the robot can ‘see’ the difference in the food as it’s chewed, which improves its ability to taste.”

“Beko has a vision to bring robots to the home environment which are safe and easy to use,” said Dr Muhammad W. Chughtai, Senior Scientist at Beko plc. “We believe that the development of robotic chefs will play a major role in busy households and assisted living homes in the future. This result is a leap forward in robotic cooking, and by using machine and deep learning algorithms, mastication will help robot chefs adjust taste for different dishes and users.”

In future, the researchers are looking to improve the robot chef so it can taste different types of food and improve sensing capabilities so it can taste sweet or oily food, for example.

The research was supported in part by Beko plc and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) Centre of Doctoral Training on Agri-Food Robotics (Agriforwards CDT). EPSRC is part of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). Fumiya Iida is a Fellow of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.

 

Reference:
Grzegorz Sochacki, Arsen Abdulali, and Fumiya Iida. ‘Mastication-Enhanced Taste-Based Classification of Multi-Ingredient Dishes for Robotic Cooking.’ Frontiers in Robotics & AI (2022). DOI: 10.3389/frobt.2022.886074


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.

New Report Assesses Global Anti-Deforestation Measures

Deforestation
source:www.cam.ac.uk

 

Comprehensive scientific report shows progress and effects on climate, nature and people.

 

REDD+ will only be effective if we learn the lessons from existing efforts and interventions in the forest sector, and the challenges they have faced.

Bhaskar Vira

A major scientific assessment, published by the Global Forest Expert Panels (GFEP) Programme, led by the International Union of Forest Research Organizations (IUFRO), has evaluated the world’s progress on reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation.

The report analyses the past 10 years of REDD+ implementation – a global action plan to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation primarily in tropical and sub-tropical regions – with respect to forest governance, carbon measurements and effects on biodiversity and livelihoods. The findings are presented during World Forestry Congress week, taking place this week in Seoul.

One major conclusion is that while REDD+ has provided a convenient umbrella for many forest and land use related activities aimed at reducing deforestation and forest degradation – and associated greenhouse gas emissions – the interlinkages and complexities of relationships between forests, land use and climate are profound.

The report, which aims to inform ongoing policy discussions on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, comes at a pivotal time: Human-induced climate change and increases in extreme weather events are impacting nature and people faster and more severely than had been expected 20 years ago.

However, there is still a chance to reverse this trend and avoid further global warming, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. This requires drastic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, particularly CO2, most of which stem from burning fossil fuels.

Forests also play an important role in the global carbon cycle: they absorb carbon as they grow and emit carbon when they are destroyed. Every year nearly one-third of the global carbon emissions produced by humans can be absorbed by forests, yet deforestation and forest degradation are responsible for up to 10% of the annual man-made CO2 emissions.

In addition, interest in forests as a ‘nature-based solution’ has probably never been higher and the number of initiatives aimed at conserving, sustainably managing and restoring forests has increased considerably.

“This report is being launched at a very important moment, and feeds directly into international discussions on climate change and biodiversity,” said lead author Professor Bhaskar Vira, Head of Cambridge’s Department of Geography. “There is an urgent focus on the role of land use and forests as part of our transitions towards a net zero future, and on the contributions that forests can make to biodiversity and livelihoods.

“REDD+ will only be effective if we learn the lessons from existing efforts and interventions in the forest sector, and the challenges they have faced. This report offers key insights into the ways in which new and innovative sources of funding and finance should be organised and governed to ensure equitable and sustainable future pathways that benefit all, especially the Indigenous Peoples and local communities who live in and around forests.”

In addition to promoting forest protection and carbon sink enhancement, a key focus of REDD+ is to move the scope of interventions beyond climate impacts towards an integrated view of climate, biodiversity and livelihoods. REDD+ can deliver numerous environmental benefits, including reduced soil erosion, enhanced water quality and quantity, and increased resilience to drought and floods. It can potentially deliver important biodiversity benefits, although the availability of up-to-date biodiversity data remains a major challenge.

“Such benefits have significant economic importance and may increase both the value of REDD+ programs and people’s willingness to engage with them. However, in the implementation of REDD+, greater attention to biodiversity and livelihood outcomes is needed,” said lead author and IUFRO President John Parrotta of the USDA Forest Service.

Evidence from social evaluations of REDD+ interventions indicates that, where direct and indirect benefits are clearly visible to local stakeholders, and have been delivered, community engagement is strong and projects have achieved positive carbon and social outcomes, at least in the short term. Furthermore, explicit attention to rights and tenure issues provides more transparent mechanisms for the reporting and monitoring of environmental and social co-benefits, as well as better, more equitable outcomes, particularly for more vulnerable communities.

Case studies from Indonesia show that insecure tenure can exacerbate distrust between resource users and the government, and can keep local people from further participating in REDD+ activities. Evidence from Latin America and the Caribbean suggests that deforestation is lower in areas where Indigenous and Tribal Peoples’ collective land rights are recognised.

“Since 2012, implementation of REDD+ has advanced considerably in many countries but ultimately it is REDD+ governance that determines its performance. Yet, governance is distributed across a complex landscape of institutions with different sources of authority and power dynamics that influence its outcomes,” said GFEP Programme Coordinator Christoph Wildburger.

REDD+ is being applied in a wide diversity of contexts with an equally wide diversity of governance strategies, which are changing over time. Brazil, for example, was initially a leading global source of deforestation, then a world leader in reducing deforestation, and is now experiencing rising deforestation once again. While Brazil’s federal government has played a key role in these swings in deforestation rates, a number of Brazilian states are pursuing their own REDD+ initiatives with positive outcomes. Ghana, a relatively small country where deforestation has been strongly linked to the production of cocoa for export, is pursuing the ‘world’s first commodity-driven’ REDD+ strategy with private sector investments in ‘climate smart cocoa’. Both Brazil and Ghana illustrate the important role that actors other than national governments may play in shaping REDD+, such as sub-national state actors or private companies trading in forest risk commodities like cocoa.

Adapted from an IUFRO press release.


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.

Cognitive impairment from severe COVID-19 equivalent to 20 years of ageing, study finds

Cognitive impairment from severe COVID-19 equivalent to 20 years of ageing, study finds

Senior woman wearing face mask lying on hospital bed
Senior woman wearing face mask lying on hospital bed Credit: RUBEN BONILLA GONZALO

 

Cognitive impairment as a result of severe COVID-19 is similar to that sustained between 50 and 70 years of age and is the equivalent to losing 10 IQ points, say a team of scientists from the University of Cambridge and Imperial College London.

 

Cognitive impairment is common to a wide range of neurological disorders, but the patterns we saw – the cognitive ‘fingerprint’ of COVID-19 – was distinct from all of these

David Menon

The findings, published in the journal eClinicalMedicine, emerge from the NIHR COVID-19 BioResource. The results of the study suggest the effects are still detectable more than six months after the acute illness, and that any recovery is at best gradual.

There is growing evidence that COVID-19 can cause lasting cognitive and mental health problems, with recovered patients reporting symptoms including fatigue, ‘brain fog’, problems recalling words, sleep disturbances, anxiety and even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) months after infection. In the UK, a study found that around one in seven individuals surveyed reported having symptoms that included cognitive difficulties 12 weeks after a positive COVID-19 test.

While even mild cases can lead to persistent cognitive symptoms, between a third and three-quarters of hospitalised patients report still suffering cognitive symptoms three to six months later.

To explore this link in greater detail, researchers analysed data from 46 individuals who received in-hospital care, on the ward or intensive care unit, for COVID-19 at Addenbrooke’s Hospital, part of Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust. 16 patients were put on mechanical ventilation during their stay in hospital. All the patients were admitted between March and July 2020 and were recruited to the NIHR COVID-19 BioResource.

The individuals underwent detailed computerised cognitive tests an average of six months after their acute illness using the Cognitron platform, which measures different aspects of mental faculties such as memory, attention and reasoning. Scales measuring anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder were also assessed. Their data were compared against matched controls.

This is the first time that such rigorous assessment and comparison has been carried out in relation to the after effects of severe COVID-19.

COVID-19 survivors were less accurate and with slower response times than the matched control population – and these deficits were still detectable when the patients were following up six months later. The effects were strongest for those who required mechanical ventilation. By comparing the patients to 66,008 members of the general public, the researchers estimate that the magnitude of cognitive loss is similar on average to that sustained with 20 years ageing, between 50 and 70 years of age, and that this is equivalent to losing 10 IQ points.

Survivors scored particularly poorly on tasks such as verbal analogical reasoning, a finding that supports the commonly-reported problem of difficulty finding words. They also showed slower processing speeds, which aligns with previous observations post COVID-19 of decreased brain glucose consumption within the frontoparietal network of the brain, responsible for attention, complex problem-solving and working memory, among other functions.

Professor David Menon from the Division of Anaesthesia at the University of Cambridge, the study’s senior author, said: “Cognitive impairment is common to a wide range of neurological disorders, including dementia, and even routine ageing, but the patterns we saw – the cognitive ‘fingerprint’ of COVID-19 – was distinct from all of these.”

While it is now well established that people who have recovered from severe COVID-19 illness can have a broad spectrum of symptoms of poor mental health – depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress, low motivation, fatigue, low mood, and disturbed sleep – the team found that acute illness severity was better at predicting the cognitive deficits.

The patients’ scores and reaction times began to improve over time, but the researchers say that any recovery in cognitive faculties was at best gradual and likely to be influenced by a number of factors including illness severity and its neurological or psychological impacts.

Professor Menon added: “We followed some patients up as late as ten months after their acute infection, so were able to see a very slow improvement. While this was not statistically significant, it is at least heading in the right direction, but it is very possible that some of these individuals will never fully recover.”

There are several factors that could cause the cognitive deficits, say the researchers. Direct viral infection is possible, but unlikely to be a major cause; instead, it is more likely that a combination of factors contribute, including inadequate oxygen or blood supply to the brain, blockage of large or small blood vessels due to clotting, and microscopic bleeds. However, emerging evidence suggests that the most important mechanism may be damage caused by the body’s own inflammatory response and immune system.

While this study looked at hospitalised cases, the team say that even those patients not sick enough to be admitted may also have tell-tale signs of mild impairment.

Professor Adam Hampshire from the Department of Brain Sciences at Imperial College London, the study’s first author, said: “Around 40,000 people have been through intensive care with COVID-19 in England alone and many more will have been very sick, but not admitted to hospital. This means there is a large number of people out there still experiencing problems with cognition many months later. We urgently need to look at what can be done to help these people.”

Professor Menon and Professor Ed Bullmore from Cambridge’s Department of Psychiatry are co-leading working groups as part of the COVID-19 Clinical Neuroscience Study (COVID-CNS) that aim to identify biomarkers that relate to neurological impairments as a result of COVID-19, and the neuroimaging changes that are associated with these.

The research was funded by the NIHR BioResource, NIHR Cambridge Biomedical Research Centre and the Addenbrooke’s Charitable Trust, with support from the NIHR Cambridge Clinical Research Facility.

Reference
Hampshire, A et al. Multivariate profile and acute-phase correlates of cognitive deficits in a COVID-19 hospitalised cohort. eClinicalMedicine; 28 Apr 2022; DOI: 10.1016/j.eclinm.2022.101417


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.

source: cam.ac.uk

Want more students to learn languages? Win over the parents, research suggests

Want more students to learn languages? Win over the parents, research suggests

Girl listening in the classroom Credit: Ben Mullins via Unsplash

 

Parents influence children’s attitudes to languages far more than their teachers or friends, research finds. This implies that efforts to reverse the national decline in language-learning need to target families as well as schools, researchers say.

 

Waning interest in these subjects is a public communication challenge; it’s not just about what happens in schools

Linda Fisher

Children’s attitudes towards learning languages and their willingness to see themselves as ‘multilingual’ are influenced far more by the views of their parents than by their teachers or friends, new research indicates.

The finding implies that parents may have an important part to play in reversing the national decline in language-learning. The authors of the study, which was led by researchers at the University of Cambridge, say that efforts to increase uptake in these subjects would benefit from involving families, as well as schools.

Entry rates for modern languages have declined steadily, at both GCSE and A-Level, since the early 2000s. GCSE entry data, for example, show that the combined total number of pupils taking French, German, Spanish and other Modern Languages last year was almost half that of 2001.

The new study surveyed more than 1,300 Year 8 students, aged 12-13, to understand what makes them self-identify as ‘multilingual’: as capable learners and users of other languages. The responses revealed that their parents’ beliefs about languages had almost twice as much influence as the opinions of their teachers, and were also significantly more influential than the views of their peers.

Specifically, parental attitudes help students who are still forming a view about languages work out whether these subjects matter personally to them. In general, the study shows that they are more likely to consider themselves ‘multilingual’ if they identify with languages at this personal level and see them as relevant to their own lives. Simply learning languages at school and being told that they are useful appears to make less difference.

Professor Linda Fisher, from the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge, said: “Students’ personal commitment to languages is determined by their experiences, their beliefs, and their emotional response to speaking or using them. Slightly surprisingly, the people who feed into that most appear to be their parents.”

“This can be a positive or negative influence depending on the parents’ own views. Its importance underlines the fact that if we want more young people to learn languages, we need to pay attention to wider social and cultural attitudes to languages beyond the classroom. Waning interest in these subjects is a public communication challenge; it’s not just about what happens in schools.”

Some language-learning specialists argue that most people are fundamentally “multilingual”. Even if they do not speak another language fluently, they may know assorted words and phrases, or another kind of ‘language’: such as a dialect, sign language, or computer code.

Recognising that they have this multilingual capability appears to strengthen students’ self-belief when they encounter modern languages at school. There is also evidence that students who self-identify as multilingual perform better across the school curriculum, including in non-language subjects.

The study explored what leads students to see themselves in these terms, and whether this varies between different groups – for example, those who have ‘English as an Additional Language’ (EAL), and typically speak another language at home.

In the survey, students were asked to state how strongly they agreed or disagreed with various statements, such as: “Learning other languages is pointless because everyone speaks English”, and: “My parents think that it’s cool to be able to speak other languages.” They were also asked about their own experience with languages, and how multilingual they considered themselves to be. The researchers then developed a model showing the relative importance of different potential influences on their self-identification as language-learners.

Although some influences – such as that of peers – differed for EAL and non-EAL students, that of parents was consistently strong. Across the board, the relative impact of parents’ attitudes on students’ willingness to see themselves as multilingual was found to be about 1.4 times greater than that of their friends, and almost double that of their teachers.

The researchers suggest that encouraging more parents to recognise their own multilingual capabilities would positively affect their children’s own language-learning. “In an ideal world we should be encouraging adults, as well as children, to see themselves as having a repertoire of communicative resources,” Fisher said. “It’s remarkable how quickly attitudes change once you start asking: ‘What words do you already know, what dialect do you speak; can you sign?’”

More broadly, the study found that young people are more likely to see themselves in these terms if they are exposed to meaningful experiences that involve other languages – for example by hearing and using them in their communities, or while travelling abroad. This, along with their personal and emotional response to the idea of languages, informs the degree to which they self-describe as multilingual.

The researchers argue that this raises questions about recent Government reforms to language GCSEs, which are meant to help students “grow in confidence and motivation”. The new measures focus narrowly on so-called linguistic “building blocks”: for example, requiring students to learn 1,700 common words in the target language. Head teachers’ bodies have already criticised them as “prescriptive and grinding” and liable to alienate pupils further.

The new study similarly indicates that encouraging more young people to learn languages requires a broader-minded approach.

“There’s no evidence that if you just focus on the mechanics – phonics, grammar and so on – you’re going to motivate students or, for that matter, teachers,” Fisher said. “Students need to discover what languages mean to them, which means they also need to learn about culture, identity and self-expression. Simply drilling verb forms into them will only persuade a swathe of the school population that these subjects are not for them. That is especially likely if their parents don’t value languages either.”

The research is published in the International Journal of Multilingualism.


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.

source: cam.ac.uk

AI needs to serve people, science, and society

AI needs to serve people, science, and society

Published 29 April 2022

Binary data wave

Artificial intelligence offers great promise, but we must ensure it does not deepen inequalities.

Today we are setting out our vision for AI@Cam, a new flagship mission at the University of Cambridge.

Artificial intelligence today is ubiquitous.

It is deployed in health to map the consequences of genetic variation in cancer. It is helping researchers find new pulsars and planets. It is providing faster approaches for solving complex equations to support climate science.

Cambridge has already made important contributions across these fields. Shankar Balasubramanian and David Klenerman revolutionised the field of genomics with their rapid sequencing technology. Jocelyn Bell Burnell and Tony Hewish discovered a new class of astronomical object when they observed the first pulsar. Maurice Wilkes and David Wheeler showed the power of technology for problem solving, being the first to solve a differential equation with a digital computer. These advances in science and technology created new understandings of the world, and in turn provided new tools that pushed forward the frontiers of science.

The pervasiveness of AI sets it apart from other areas of technology innovation, such as nanotechnologies, graphene, or fusion. AI is both a rapidly-advancing research domain and an accelerator of innovation in other disciplines and industry sectors.

It is also a technology that is intertwined with diverse societal interests. Its impact is felt across society.

AI: a global panacea?

In Greek mythology, Panacea was the goddess of the universal remedy. One consequence of the pervasive potential of AI is that it is positioned, like Panacea, as the purveyor of a universal solution. Whether it is overcoming industry’s productivity challenges, or as a salve for strained public sector services, or a remedy for pressing global challenges in sustainable development, AI is presented as an elixir to resolve society’s problems.

In practice, translation of AI technology into practical benefit is not simple. Moreover, a growing body of evidence shows that risks and benefits from AI innovations are unevenly distributed across society.

When carelessly deployed, AI risks exacerbating existing social and economic inequalities.

Innovating to serve science and society requires a pipeline of interventions. As well as advances in the technical capabilities of AI technologies, engineering knowhow is required to safely deploy and monitor those solutions in practice. Regulatory frameworks need to adapt to ensure trustworthy use of these technologies. Aligning technology development with public interests demands effective stakeholder engagement to bring diverse voices and expertise into technology design.

Building this pipeline will take coordination across research, engineering, policy and practice. It also requires action to address the digital divides that influence who benefits from AI advances. These include digital divides within the socioeconomic strata that need to be overcome – AI must not exacerbate existing equalities or create new ones. In addressing these challenges, we can be hindered by divides that exist between traditional academic disciplines. We need to develop common understanding of the problems and a shared knowledge of possible solutions.

Making AI equitable

AI@Cam is a new flagship University mission that seeks to address these challenges. It recognises that development of safe and effective AI-enabled innovations requires this mix of expertise from across research domains, businesses, policy-makers, civill society, and from affected communities. AI@Cam is setting out a vision for AI-enabled innovation that benefits science, citizens and society.

This vision will be achieved through leveraging the University’s vibrant interdisciplinary research community. AI@Cam will form partnerships between researchers, practitioners, and affected communities that embed equity and inclusion. It will develop new platforms for innovation and knowledge transfer. It will deliver innovative interdisciplinary teaching and learning for students, researchers, and professionals. It will build strong connections between the University and national AI priorities.

The University operates as both an engine of AI-enabled innovation and steward of those innovations.

AI is not a universal remedy. It is a set of tools, techniques and practices that correctly deployed can be leveraged to deliver societal benefit and mitigate social harm.

In that sense AI@Cam’s mission is close in spirit to that of Panacea’s elder sister Hygeia. It is focussed on building and maintaining the hygiene of a robust and equitable AI research ecosystem.

Our review, published today, signals the University’s commitment to this new wave of AI-enabled research and innovation. We look forward to playing an active role in sharing the benefits of that technology across society.

About the authors

Neil Lawrence is the DeepMind Professor of Machine Learning at the University of Cambridge in the Department of Computer Science and Technology.

Jess Montgomery is Executive Director of the Accelerate Programme for Scientific Discovery at the University of Cambridge.

Further information

Find out more about AI@Cam here.

Images

The text in this work is licensed under aCreative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

source: cam.ac.uk

Six new species of tiny frog discovered in Mexico

Six new species of tiny frog discovered in Mexico

The size of a thumbnail, they don’t have a tadpole stage and live in a ‘secret world’ on the forest floor

Craugastor cueyatl on a Mexican coin

Craugastor cueyatl on a Mexican coin

By Jacqueline Garget

Published 27 April 2022

Scientists have discovered six new species of frog the size of a thumbnail in the forests of Mexico, with one earning the distinction of Mexico’s smallest frog.

All six species are smaller than a British 1p coin – around 15mm long – when fully grown. Adult males of the tiniest of these species, named Craugastor candelariensis, grow to only 13mm.

“Until now these new species have gone unnoticed because they’re small and brown and look really similar to other frogs”

Tom Jameson, a researcher at the University of Cambridge’s Department of Zoology and University Museum of Zoology, who led the study.

“Their lifestyle is utterly fascinating,” adds Jameson. “These frogs live in the dark, humid leaf litter of the forests, which is like a secret world – we don’t really know anything about what goes on there. We don’t understand their behaviour, how they socialise, or how they breed.”

The newly discovered species are known as ‘direct-developing’ frogs: rather than hatching from eggs into tadpoles like most frogs, they emerge from the eggs as perfect miniature frogs. And they’re so small that they’re right at the bottom of the forest food chain.

“With millions of these frogs living in the leaf litter, we think they’re likely to play a hugely important role in the ecosystem as a source of food for everything else, from lizards to predatory birds,” says Jameson.

The discovery, by researchers at the University of Cambridge, London’s Natural History Museum, and the University of Texas at Arlington, is published this month in the journal Herpetological Monographs.

Craugastor rubinus in a researcher’s fingertips

Craugastor cueyatl on a Mexican coin

A painstaking investigation

Craugastor polaclavis

Craugastor rubinus

The study involved gathering almost 500 frog specimens from museums around the world, which had been collected in Mexico, and using new methods to categorise the relationships between them.

“Frogs are an absolutely fascinating group of animals. I spent many, many hours with magnifying glasses clipped onto my glasses trying to understand the differences between them,” says Jameson.

Using DNA sequencing, the team sorted the frogs into groups based on how similar their genes were. Then CT-scanning was used to create 3D models of the frogs’ skeletons, so that physical details could be compared. These two very different lines of evidence revealed six new species of frog.

“We’re really excited to have discovered six new Craugastor species that are completely new to science”

says Jameson, adding: “Frogs in the group known as Craugastor are very difficult to tell apart, so scientists have long suspected that more species may exist.”

Tiny frogs, lengthy names

The new species have been named Craugastor bitonium, Craugastor candelariensis, Craugastor cueyatl, Craugastor polaclavus, Craugastor portilloensis, and Craugastor rubinus.

Jameson is particularly pleased with the name cueyatl – it means ‘frog’ in the indigenous language, Nahuatl, spoken in the Valley of Mexico where this species was found.

“We chose the name cueyatl to honour the rich human history of the Valley of Mexico, and the local people who have probably known these frogs far longer than we have,” he says.

The team think the smallest of the six new species is Craugastor candelariensis, which grows to just 13mm long. They did find some specimens of Craugastor portilloensis that were smaller, but couldn’t be sure that these were fully grown adults.

But whichever of these species holds the new title of Mexico’s tiniest frog hasn’t quite taken the world title. Adult males of Paedophryne amanuensis, a frog from Papua New Guinea, are even smaller – they don’t even reach 8mm.

The name Craugastor cueyatl means ‘frog’ in the indigenous language spoken in the Valley of Mexico where it was found.

Already endangered

Known as ‘micro-endemics’, some of the newly discovered frogs may occur only in one small area, such as a hilltop in a certain part of Mexico. This makes them incredibly vulnerable.

Habitat in Jalisco, Mexico where C. rubinus is found.

“We named Craugastor rubinus after the garnet mines in the hillside where they’re found,” says Jameson. “Sadly, it will only take the expansion of one mine and these frogs could be gone.”

Habitat loss can also result from climate change. And the frogs are threatened by a deadly fungal disease, chytridiomycosis, that’s wiping out amphibian populations across the world.

But the researchers are hopeful that there’s a future for their tiny frogs. They have identified key protected areas throughout Mexico where the six new species live – and now hope to work with the government and NGOs in Mexico to connect these areas together.

“These frogs potentially play a really important role in the forest ecosystem,” says Jameson. “We need to make sure that they don’t just get wiped off the map because no-one even knows they’re there.”

He thinks there are probably many more species of Craugastor frog still to be discovered, simply because nobody has had a chance to look for them yet.

“We’ve looked at the maps of where the original expeditions went looking for frogs in Mexico, and found whole valleys and river systems where nobody went,” he says.

“Because the tiny frogs live in tiny areas we can be pretty confident there’s a whole bunch of other undiscovered species there – all we have to do is go and find them.”

Tom Jameson, first author of the study

Reference

Jameson, T.J.M., et al: ‘Miniaturization in Direct-Developing Frogs from Mexico with the Description of Six New Species’. Herpetological Monographs, April 2022. DOI: 10.1655/0733-1347-36.1.1

Photographs of C.cueyatl and C. rubinus by Jeffrey W. Streicher

Contacts

Media enquiries: Jacqueline Garget Researcher: Tom Jameson

The text in this work is licensed under aCreative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

source: cam.ac.uk

Cambridge academics win European Research Council Advanced Grants

Cambridge academics win European Research Council Advanced Grants

Nine Cambridge academics have won Advanced Grants awarded by the European Research Council (ERC). This is the greatest number of grants won by a UK institution in the 2021 round of funding.

Advanced Grants are awarded to leading researchers who are established in their field and have a recognised track record of achievements. The Cambridge grantees are Professor Anuj Dawar, Professor Vikram Deshpande, Professor Paul Dupree, Professor Matthew Gaunt, Dr Florian Markowetz, Professor Pierre Raphael, Professor Erwin Reisner, Professor Rodolphe Sepulchre and Professor Ivan Smith.

“I’d like to offer my congratulations to our nine grantees,” says Professor Anne Ferguson-Smith, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research. “Each of the awardees has made outstanding contributions to their field and the ERC funding they have secured is testament to this.

“This funding will allow our grantees to pursue innovative ambitious research projects at the cutting edge of their disciplines and their success reminds us of the greatly valued contribution of ERC funding programmes to our research environment.”

The ERC is the premier European funding organisation for excellent frontier research. The 2021 Advanced Grants competition will see funding worth €624 million going to 253 leading researchers across Europe. This year, the UK has received grants for 45 projects, Germany 61, the Netherlands 27 and France 26. The overall ERC budget from 2021 to 2027 is more than €16 billion, as part of the Horizon Europe programme.

Cambridge grantees and projects

Anuj Dawar, Professor of Logic and Algorithms, Department of Computer Science and Technology, Fellow and Deputy Warden of Robinson College

Professor Anuj Dawar

Project: Limits of Symmetric Computation (LimSymm)

Overview: “Some problems are inherently difficult to solve computationally” says Dawar, “the challenge is to prove that there is no efficient algorithm.”

“In our recent work we have shown the limitations of certain kinds of symmetric algorithms. In this project we’ll be addressing the challenge of expanding the mathematical notion of symmetry to cover a broader range of algorithms. This will help us identify exactly which kind of problems these algorithms aren’t able to solve.

“For me, a key driver is wanting to further our fundamental, conceptual understanding of the nature of computation and what’s possible – and what’s impossible – within it. It’s a fascinating puzzle.”

“I am delighted to have received this award. It is recognition of the work I and my group have been doing developing the theory of symmetric computation and of the potential this work represents. I am very excited about carrying this work forward and using the ERC funding to build an excellent team.”

Professor Anuj Dawar

Vikram Deshpande, Professor of Materials Engineering, Department of Engineering, Fellow of Pembroke College

Professor Vikram Deshpande

Project: Graph-based Learning and design of Advanced Mechanical Metamaterials (GLAMM)

Overview: “Additive manufacturing has opened the possibility for the creation of metamaterials with previously unattainable properties,” says Deshpande. “We will exploit graph-based generative machine learning models to open-up the vast untapped design space of topologically complex metamaterials. The project will thereby lay the scientific foundations for new engineering material designs and solutions.”

“I view this award as a testament to the creativity of my group that has been working on related areas for a few years now. We are very much looking forward to exploiting the opportunity provided by this ERC grant to make significant breakthroughs.”

Professor Vikram Deshpande

Paul Dupree, Professor of Biochemistry, Department of Biochemistry

Professor Paul Dupree. Credit: Rhys Grant, Biochemistry.

Project: Function and evolution of plant cell wall architecture for sustainable technologies (EVOCATE)

Overview: “Plants fibres in timber, crops and food help us to live healthily and sustainably,” says Dupree. “This project will allow us to study how the architecture of plant fibres changed over millions of years of evolution. Together with team members developing solid state nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) at the University of Warwick, we aim to support the development and improvement of biodegradable and renewable materials from plants.”

“I am delighted and honoured to be awarded this grant in competition with scientists across Europe. The ERC recognises the value of high-risk high-gain long-term science. I will now have the opportunity to start research on basic science that we hope will be transformative in plant biology and renewable material science.”

Professor Paul Dupree

Matthew Gaunt, 1702 Yusuf Hamied Professor of Chemistry, Yusuf Hamied Department of Chemistry

Professor Matthew Gaunt

Project: A Chemical Synthesis Approach towards Decoding the Epitranscriptome (ChemDecEpi)

Overview: “RNA is fundamental to cellular function and disease, says Gaunt. “Beyond its canonical nucleotides there are more than 150 post-transcriptional modifications in RNA. We aim to establish a field called synthetic epitranscriptomics to detect RNA modifications by designing selective chemical reactions that exploit the innate reactivity of the subtle changes in the nucleotide structure.”

“I’m delighted to have been awarded an ERC Advanced Grant as it will enable me to follow a completely new line of research that I hope will help to establish synthesis-driven insight into the mysteries of RNA biology”

Professor Matthew Gaunt

Florian Markowetz, Senior Group leader, Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute

Dr Florian Markowetz

Project: Targeting the roots of chromosomal instability in cancer (CliniCIN)

Overview: “Genomic chaos caused by chromosomal instability is a hallmark of most lethal cancers,” says Markowetz. “Highly unstable tumours have few biomarkers to guide treatment decisions and patient survival has not improved for decades. I propose a novel single cell DNA sequencing approach to identify ongoing mutational processes from unique events in individual cells and use them to choose the best drug for each patient.”

“It is a great privilege to be part of this amazing network of European researchers.”

Dr Florian Markowetz

Pierre Raphael, Herchel Smith Professor of Pure Mathematics, Department of Pure Mathematics and Mathematical Statistics

Professor Pierre Raphael

Project: Singularities for waves and turbulent flows (SWAT)

Overview: “The project aims to explore the mechanisms of energy concentration and singularity formation in the propagation of non-linear waves with applications to non-linear optics, astrophysics and fluid mechanics,” says Raphael. “It brings together a leading team of mathematicians at the heart of the field of non-linear partial differential equations.”

“The EU support provided by ERC advanced grant is extremely generous and a fundamental step for the development and the visibility of our research activity at the international level.”

Professor Pierre Raphael

Erwin Reisner, Professor of Energy and Sustainability, Yusuf Hamied Department of Chemistry

Professor Erwin Reisner

Project: Semi-biological Domino Catalysis for Solar Chemical Synthesis (domino4chem)

Overview: “The project will combine the strength of synthetic and biological technologies to use sunlight for the synthesis of high value organic chemicals from the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide,” says Reisner. “This cross-disciplinary approach will establish sunlight-to-chemical conversion technologies for sustainable chemical manufacturing in a circular economy.”

“I am absolutely thrilled to receive this award! This is a massive recognition for my entire research team and the generous support will enable me to establish an ambitious and transformative research programme to support the transition to a net zero carbon society.”

Professor Erwin Reisner

Rodolphe Sepulchre, Professor of Engineering, Control Group, Department of Engineering

Professor Rodolphe Sepulchre

Project: Spiking Control Systems: an algorithmic theory for control design of physical event-based systems (SpikyControl)

Overview: “Spikes and rhythms organise control and communication in the animal world, in contrast to the bits and clocks of digital technology,” says Sepulchre. “Spiking control systems aim at imitating the spiking nature of animal computation, combining the adaptation of analogue physical systems and the reliability of digital automata.

“The project will explore novel control strategies to interconnect event-based sensors and actuators and will test them both in electrophysiological and electronic environments. Spiking control systems could enable an entirely novel generation of brain-inspired functionalities in machine intelligence and in neural interfaces.”

“ERC is unique in encouraging researchers to venture into unchartered territories. I feel privileged that it will fund my research for the next five years.”

Professor Rodolphe Sepulchre

Ivan Smith, Professor of Geometry, Department of Pure Mathematics and Mathematical Statistics

Professor Ivan Smith

Project: Floer theory beyond Floer (FloerPlus35)

Overview: “The proposal seeks to develop newly discovered interactions between three fields: homotopy theory, which concerns `flexible’ properties of geometric spaces; Floer theory, which studies classical dynamics via the analysis of partial differential equations; and algebraic cycles, special subspaces constrained by `rigid’ properties of defining polynomial equations,” says Smith.

“I was very honoured and excited to be awarded the ERC grant. The proposal is guided by very recent developments in symplectic topology which leave a lot of territory unexplored. The funding presents a unique opportunity to reinvigorate existing collaborations, to raise the profile of this emerging area, and to bring new students and postdoctoral researchers into this beautiful part of the mathematical landscape.”

Professor Ivan Smith

Published 26 April 2022
With thanks to:

Professor Anuj Dawar

Professor Vikram Deshpande

Professor Paul Dupree

Professor Matthew Gaunt

Dr Florian Markowetz

Professor Pierre Raphael

Professor Erwin Reisner

Professor Rodolphe Sepulchre

Professor Ivan Smith

The text in this work is licensed under aCreative Commons

source: cam.ac.uk

Lockdown Wellbeing: Children Who Spent More Time In Nature Fared Best

Lockdown Wellbeing: Children Who Spent More Time In Nature Fared Best

Children outdoors in muddy wellies
Children outdoors in muddy wellies Credit: Ben Wicks on Unsplash

 

Children from less affluent backgrounds are likely to have found COVID-19 lockdowns more challenging to their mental health because they experienced a lower connection with nature than their wealthier peers, a new study suggests.

 

Children from less affluent families were less likely to have increased their connection to nature during lockdown

Samantha Friedman

A study has found that children who increased their connection to nature during the first COVID-19 lockdown were likely to have lower levels of behavioural and emotional problems, compared to those whose connection to nature stayed the same or decreased – regardless of their socio-economic status.

The study, by researchers at the University of Cambridge and the University of Sussex, also found that children from affluent families tended to have increased their connection to nature during the pandemic more than their less affluent peers.

Nearly two thirds of parents reported a change in their child’s connection to nature during lockdown, while a third of children whose connection to nature decreased displayed increased problems of wellbeing – either through ‘acting out’ or by increased sadness or anxiety.

The results strengthen the case for nature as a low-cost method of mental health support for children, and suggest that more effort should be made to support children in connecting with nature – both at home and at school.

The researchers’ suggestions for achieving this include: reducing the number of structured extracurricular activities for children to allow for more time outside, provision of gardening projects in schools, and funding for schools, particularly in disadvantaged areas, to implement nature-based learning programmes.

The study, published today in the journal People and Nature, also offers important guidance in relation to potential future restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We know that access to and engagement with nature is associated with wide-ranging benefits in children and adults, including lowering levels of anxiety and depression, and reducing stress,” said Samantha Friedman, a researcher in the University of Cambridge’s Centre for Family Research, first author of the study.

She added: “The COVID-19 lockdowns meant that children no longer had their normal school activities, routines and social interactions. The removal of these barriers gave us a novel context to look at how changes in connection with nature affected mental health.

“Connecting with nature may have helped buffer some UK children against the effects of the lockdown, but we found that children from less affluent families were less likely to have increased their connection to nature during that time.”

An increased connection to nature was reflected in reports of children spending time gardening, playing in the garden or doing physical activities outdoors. This was commonly linked to having more time available for these activities during lockdown. Conversely, according to parents, a decreased connection to nature was explained by an inability to access some natural spaces due to travel restrictions in place at the time.

“Connecting to nature may be an effective way of supporting children’s wellbeing, particularly as children return to normal routines, such as school and extracurricular activities,” said Dr Elian Fink, a Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Sussex who was also involved in the study.

She added: “Our findings could be helpful in redesigning lockdown rules should the UK need to return to these conditions in the future, and particularly to countries whose lockdown restrictions prevented children from accessing nature at all.

“Extending the amount of time that children can access nature, or extending the distance that children could be allowed to travel to access nature, could have a beneficial impact on their mental health.”

The study used an online survey to collect responses from 376 families in the UK, with children between three and seven years old, between April and July 2020. Over half of these families reported that their child’s connection to nature increased during the first COVID-19 lockdown. The remaining parents whose children’s connection to nature decreased or stayed the same during this period also reported that their children were experiencing greater wellbeing problems.

A widely-used, gold standard questionnaire was used as a measure of each child’s mental health – assessing emotional problems such as unhappiness, worrying, anxiety and depression; and behavioural problems such as anger and hyperactivity.

“Mental health problems can manifest in different ways in different children. We found that a greater connection with nature was associated with reductions in both emotional and behavioural problems,” said Fink.

She added: “In reality the contrasting experiences of access to nature between different socio-economic groups may be even starker than our study found because respondents to our online study were largely drawn from more affluent societal groups.”

Parents with children between three and seven years old responded to the study survey with reference to one particular child. The researchers focused on this age group because they were likely to experience a lot of disruption due to the pandemic, and also have less understanding of what was happening.

“Our study revealed the wide range of ways that parents can help children get more connected to nature. This might be a bit daunting to some, but it doesn’t have to be camping in the woods and foraging for food – it really can be as simple as going for a walk near your house or sitting outside for ten minutes a day,” said Friedman.

This research was funded by Newnham College, University of Cambridge.

source: www.cam.ac.uk

Reference

Friedman, S. et al: ‘Understanding changes to children’s connection to nature during the Covid-19 pandemic and implications for child well-being.’ People and Nature, Oct 2021. DOI: 10.1002/pan3.10270


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.

New Janeway Institute To Transform Economic Research

New Janeway Institute To Transform Economic Research

Based within the Faculty of Economics at the University of Cambridge, the new Weslie and William Janeway Institute for Economics launches on Tuesday 19th October 2021.

Disseminating research at the frontier of economics is just one of the roles of the new institute, which aims to help shape young minds and transform economic research.

The Janeway Institute will be primarily funded by Weslie and William Janeway. William Janeway is an alumnus of the PhD programme at Cambridge and has played an active role in the Faculty over the last decade.

Watch the launch event at 4pm BST, attended by the Vice-Chancellor Professor Stephen Toope, followed by a panel conversation on the subject of ‘Economics Evolving: Recent Trends and Future Directions’.

The new Institute is set to focus on inequality, climate change, epidemics, gender, the digital economy, the impact of automation and machine learning, according to Janeway. “There is great research being done for example in behavioural economics, network economics and the influence of peer pressure,” he says.

William Janeway

“Macroeconomics and the polices that are developed have an impact on everyone’s day to day lives. The new Institute will ensure that theory is never decoupled in an abstract way from the real world.”

Overseeing the launch of the new Institute is Professor Vasco Carvalho, a Professor of Macroeconomics in the Faculty of Economics, and a Fellow of Jesus College.

Carvalho says the new institute will have three core missions: to produce frontier work in economics, to shape young minds by investing in the next generation of economists, and to act as a hub, bringing together researchers both in economics, and across the sciences. That hub will host hundreds of visitors over the years, and many conferences.

“Effectively, the Janeway Institute will take the place of Cambridge-INET,” says Carvalho. The aims and objectives of the new Institute will be similar, but it will benefit from being funded by an endowment rather than a grant. “A grant must deliver on what was promised at the beginning of the grant, which constrains research directions.”

Janeway was delighted to be involved in the evolution of the Institute, and largely fund it. “It struck my wife and me that it was an extremely high priority to perpetuate the work of INET at Cambridge,” he says.

“It is also an extraordinarily exciting time to be an economist, and to be part of the reconstruction of a discipline which in recent decades I feel had reached such an abstract level of theory – particularly at the macro level – it had ‘decoupled itself’ from what is really going on in the markets, and the ‘real world’.”

Watch the first of a two-part interview with William Janeway on his hopes for the new Cambridge institute.

“Now there is a chance as an economist to really connect with what matters day-to-day for many people”

William Janeway

The previous institute, Cambridge-INET, which was formed a decade ago in partnership with the Institute for New Economic Thinking, a New York City-based non-profit think tank. It awarded a major grant which allowed the Faculty to investigate these issues.

“The Cambridge-INET was seen as a jewel in the INET crown,” says William Janeway. “It is these qualities I want to perpetuate in the new Janeway Institute and the Faculty of Economics.”

With research benefitting from the credibility of a well-established department with a long tradition of frontier thinking, the INET work will be continued by the new Institute, which will also be funded by an award from the Keynes Fund and the Cambridge Endowment for Research in Finance (CERF).

Janeway, a venture capitalist, has been part of the “core of the digital revolution”.

“Digitalisation has seen extraordinary increases in the generation and capture of data. In particular, we now know much more about individuals’ behaviour – individual, group, elective, social behaviours, and most importantly market behaviours,” he says.

“Economics has always been the data rich social science. So now I want to see more and more powerful techniques for cutting through the sea of correlations, and the development of machine learning that can help us understand those correlations.”

He recently launched a new video series that explores economic growth and development, and how that growth has come through technological innovation. However, that growth has also seen much more disparity in wealthy than in previous generations.

“Another area I hope the new Institute will play a role in exploring is the recognition of the extreme increase in inequality and wealth that we have seen over the past few decades,” he adds.

“That has consequences for macroeconomics along with a number of industries and markets. What I really want to see is the exploration of these sources and causes of rising inequality over the past fifty years.”

The digital revolution, like previous societal changes from the rise of railways to electrification, has seen the rise of economic bubbles. Janeway feels this needs detailed research.

“Some bubbles seem to generate no benefits to society at all. Think of financial bubbles in tulip bulbs for example. They just caused immense damage. However, the railway mania, and now the digital mania, have built some hugely significant infrastructure, that would have been immensely difficult to build otherwise.”

Vasco Carvalho says research at the Institute will reflect key issues as they arise. “By taking an endowment, it will allow us to be much more flexible and agile, reflecting both the evolving academic strengths of the Faculty and societal concerns.”

He expects new research directions to emerge organically, covering diverse issues from climate change to epidemics, gender and the digital economy.

The Janeway Institute will build on the INET post-doc programme, and its hundreds of working papers and research contributions, by researching “fundamental questions ranging from monetary policy to behavioural norms, from trading in financial markets to supply chain disruptions” says Carvalho. “But also, by developing fundamental methods to analyse these questions.”

source: www.cam.ac.uk

Tree-Dwelling Mammals Survived After Asteroid Strike Destroyed Forests

Tree-Dwelling Mammals Survived After Asteroid Strike Destroyed Forests

Chimpanzee
Chimpanzee, Uganda Credit: Rod Waddington

 

An asteroid strike 66 million years ago wiped out the non-avian dinosaurs and devastated the Earth’s forests, but tree-dwelling ancestors of primates may have survived it, according to a new study published in the journal Ecology and Evolution.

 

The recovery of terrestrial vertebrate life following the end-Cretaceous asteroid impact was one of the most important events in the history of life on Earth

Daniel Field

Overall, the study supports the hypothesis that the widespread destruction of forests following the asteroid’s impact favoured ground-dwelling mammals over their arboreal counterparts. However, it also provides strong evidence that some tree-dwelling animals also survived the cataclysm, possibly nesting in branches through the Cretaceous-Paleogene (K-Pg) extinction event.

“The recovery of terrestrial vertebrate life following the end-Cretaceous asteroid impact was one of the most important events in the history of life on Earth,” said senior author Dr Daniel Field, from Cambridge’s Department of Earth Sciences. “In this study, we drew on our previous work at Cambridge to investigate whether there were similarities in the ecological attributes of avian and mammalian survivors of the end-Cretaceous mass extinction.”

The K-Pg mass extinction event occurred when a meteor slammed into Earth at the end of the Cretaceous period. The impact and its aftereffects killed roughly 75% of the animal and plant species on the planet, including whole groups like the non-avian dinosaurs.

For the study, the researchers analysed patterns of substrate preferences among all modern mammals and their ancestors, working backwards from the present day to before the K-Pg extinction event by tracing these traits along numerous phylogenetic trees — diagrams that illustrate the evolutionary relationships among species.

“Our study takes advantage of an ongoing revolution in our understanding of the tree of life, only made possible by researchers working in association with natural history collections,” said co-lead author Jacob Berv, from the University of Michigan. “By integrating data from such collections with modern statistical techniques, we can address new questions about major transitions in evolutionary history.”

The researchers classified each mammalian species as arboreal, non-arboreal, or semi-arboreal. To be considered arboreal, the species had to nearly always nest in trees. Categorising some species could be tricky. For example, many bat species spend a lot of time among trees but nest in caves, so bats were mostly categorised as non-arboreal or semi-arboreal.

“We were able to see that leading up to the K-Pg event, there was a spike in transitions from arboreal and semi-arboreal to non-arboreal habitat use across our models,” said co-lead author Jonathan Hughes, from Cornell University.

The work builds on a previous study led by Field, which used the same analytical method — known as ancestral state reconstruction — to show that all modern birds evolved from ground-dwelling ancestors after the asteroid strike.

“The fossil record of many vertebrate groups is sparse in the immediate aftermath of the extinction,” said Field, who is also curator of ornithology at the Cambridge Museum of Zoology. “Analytical approaches like ancestral state reconstruction allow us to establish hypotheses for how groups like birds and mammals made it through this cataclysm, which palaeontologists can then test when additional fossils are found.”

The analysis helps illuminate ecological selectivity of mammals across the K-Pg boundary despite the relatively sparse fossil record of mammalian skeletal elements from the periods immediately preceding and following the asteroid’s impact.

How the tree-dwelling ancestors of primates survived the asteroid’s destruction is unclear. According to the authors, it’s possible that some forest fragments survived the calamity or that early primates and their relatives were ecologically flexible enough to modify their substrate preferences in a world mostly denuded of trees.

source: www.cam.ac.uk

Reference:
Jonathan J. Hughes et al. ‘Ecological selectivity and the evolution of mammalian substrate preference across the K–Pg boundary.’ Ecology and Evolution (2021). DOI: 10.1002/ece3.8114

Adapted from a Yale news release.


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.

Mito Warriors: How T Cell Assassins Reload Their Weapons To Kill and Kill Again

Mito Warriors: How T Cell Assassins Reload Their Weapons To Kill and Kill Again

 

Cambridge researchers have discovered how T cells – an important component of our immune system – are able keep on killing as they hunt down and kill cancer cells, repeatedly reloading their toxic weapons.

 

T cells are trained assassins that are sent on their deadly missions by the immune system. There are billions of them in our blood, each engaged in a ferocious and unrelenting battle to keep us healthy

Gillian Griffiths

Cytotoxic T cells are specialist white blood cells that are trained by our immune system to recognise and eliminate threats – including tumour cells and cells infected with invading viruses, such as SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19. They are also at the heart of new immunotherapies that promise to transform cancer treatment.

Professor Gillian Griffiths from the Cambridge Institute for Medical Research, who led the research, said: “T cells are trained assassins that are sent on their deadly missions by the immune system. There are billions of them in our blood, each engaged in a ferocious and unrelenting battle to keep us healthy.

“Once a T cell has found its target, it binds to it and releases its toxic cargo. But what is particularly remarkable is that they are then able to go on to kill and kill again. Only now, thanks to state-of-the-art technologies, have we been able to find out how they reload their weapons.”

Today, in a study published in Science, the team have shown that the refuelling of T cells’ toxic weapons is regulated by mitochondria. Mitochondria are often referred to as a cell’s batteries as they provide the energy that power their function. However, in this case the mitochondria use an entirely different mechanism to ensure the killer T cells have sufficient ‘ammunition’ to destroy their targets.

Professor Griffiths added: “These assassins need to replenish their toxic payload so that they can keep on killing without damaging the T cells themselves. This careful balancing act turns out to be regulated by the mitochondria in T cells, which set the pace of killing according to how quickly they themselves can manufacture proteins. This enables killer T cells to stay healthy and keep on killing under challenging conditions when a prolonged response is required.”

Understanding the details of this basic process could ultimately help in the long-term scientific goal of designing and engineering T cells that are better at killing cancer cells, say the researchers.

To accompany the study, Professor Griffiths and colleagues have released footage showing killer T cells as they hunt down and eliminate cancer cells.

One teaspoon full of blood alone is believed to have around 5 million T cells, each measuring around 10 micrometres in length, about a tenth the width of a human hair. The cells, seen in the video as red or green amorphous ‘blobs’, move around rapidly, investigating their environment as they travel.

When a T cell finds an infected cell or, in the case of the film, a cancer cell, membrane protrusions rapidly explore the surface of the cell, checking for tell-tale signs that this is an uninvited guest. The T cell binds to the cancer cell and injects poisonous ‘cytotoxin’ proteins down special pathways called microtubules to the interface between the T cell and the cancer cell, before puncturing the surface of the cancer cell and delivering its deadly cargo.

The research was funded by Wellcome.

source: www.cam.ac.uk

Reference
Lisci, M et al. Mitochondrial translation is required for sustained killing by cytotoxic T cells. Science; 14 Oct 2021; DOI: 10.1126/science.abe9977


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.

Mini ‘mod’ Homes Can Help Rough Sleepers Get Off The Streets For Good

Mini ‘mod’ Homes Can Help Rough Sleepers Get Off The Streets For Good

Story: Fred Lewsey

A new study on the first modular mini-homes in England created for those experiencing homelessness has found that – combined with “wraparound support” – these small, inexpensive units made from factory-built components help to restore the health, relationships and finances of residents.

A University of Cambridge team worked with homeless charity Jimmy’s Cambridge to investigate the effectiveness of housing a group including long-term rough sleepers in six “mods” constructed in 2019 on land leased from a church in Cambridge city.

The self-contained box-shaped homes are a total of 25 square metres, complete with tiny kitchen, bathroom and front porch, and can be rapidly assembled like giant Lego. Each of the six units cost £36,000 – almost equivalent to the estimated public spending on one person sleeping rough for a year in the UK*.

Housing experts from the Cambridge Centre for Housing and Planning Research (CCHPR) and a social anthropologist from the University’s Max-Cam Centre tracked the first mod occupants over twelve months along with the staff from Jimmy’s providing services from addiction counselling to cookery classes.

Researchers found that the pilot project reduced drug and alcohol misuse and dramatically boosted physical and mental health – leading to improved financial management, new or increased work or training, and renewed relationships with family members.

After a year, and despite the disruption of COVID-19, several residents had already made plans to move on to social housing once their 18-month modular home tenancy ended, while others planned to stay in the mods longer term. The findings are published today in a report on the CCHPR website.

The view from inside one of the first ‘mods’ in England for use by those experiencing homelessness.

“For people traumatised by homelessness, often fending for themselves on the streets for many years, hostels and shared accommodation can feel unsafe. Modular homes provide that sense of safety and security that allow people to rebuild,” said Dr Gemma Burgess, research co-author and Director of CCHPR.

Mark Allan, Chief Executive of Jimmy’s Cambridge, said the research backed up the observations of his staff. “Modular homes are a simple and effective way of tackling homelessness. I hope the findings encourage the expansion of Cambridge’s pioneering scheme nationwide, so many more people can experience the benefits.”

The six original mods, financed and constructed by local social enterprises Allia and the New Meaning Foundation, have since been expanded to a total of sixteen homes in Cambridge through support from regional house-builders Hill.

“Now I talk to my daughter every week… I’ve been clean for 14 months”

One of the first mod residents

Cambridge – a city with some of the country’s highest house prices and private rents – has the fourth largest homeless population per capita. Between 2013 and 2019, almost half (46%) of homelessness-induced deaths in the East of England occurred in Cambridge.

A rough sleeper in the covered bridge by Cambridge train station.

The six mod residents were all men – most rough sleepers are male – between late twenties and early sixties. Before experiencing homelessness, all had held jobs in sectors such as retail, construction and furniture making.

One resident had been homeless for over a decade, another for over two. Some had served short jail terms. Reasons for homelessness included job loss, death of a partner, and losing close family in a fire. Most struggled with addiction.

The mods are drug-free as a condition of residence, and support workers conduct random checks. “It is unbelievably difficult for homeless people with a history of drug abuse to get sober,” said anthropologist and Cambridge co-author Dr Johannes Lenhard.

“The mods, combined with support, have allowed residents to begin tackling their addictions, many for the first time, which is extraordinary,” he said.

One resident entered a detox programme after some twenty years on opiates. “Living here, oh everything is good!… It’s got me off drugs, got a roof over my head, it’s got me back to work… Everything’s positive,” said a resident.

Associated costs such as rent and utility bills are funded through each resident’s welfare benefits, and support is offered to improve money management skills. This, in turn, helps restore confidence and enthusiasm for work.

“I feel happy right now…
I feel I’m in control of my life right now”

An early mod resident

After a year in the mods, some were pursuing new training in areas including hairdressing, while others revisited old trades. “I’m returning to my passion. I’ve got a goal; I’ve got a plan. I can’t believe I’m saying that…” said one resident.

The stability of mod living also allowed the rebuilding of family relationships. One resident became determined to find permanent housing in hopes of living with his son again. Another reconnected with his daughter after decades apart:

“Now I talk to my daughter every week, twice a week… I’ve been clean for 14 months. She’s coming to see me here for my birthday in July,” he said.

Researchers argue that the mods allow a “greater sense of self, safety and security” that is vital to creating the stable daily routines that support sobriety and autonomy in society. As one resident put it: “I’ve been paying my rent and I feel happy right now… I feel I’m in control of my life right now.”

Added Lenhard: “There is a huge sense of wellbeing tied to simply having your own front door. We can see the effect this has in the lifestyle changes of people who have previously struggled in hostels. It gives them the opportunity to re-make a home and a life.”

“Mods are a cost-effective and flexible stepping stone that help rough sleepers in desperate situations transition into permanent homes and settled lives.”

  • *Pleace and Culhance (2016) annual forecasting translated into an average of £34,518 per person experiencing homelessness in the UK. Aspects of mod design and installation were supplied pro bono, and are excluded from the £36k figure.
  • National sitewww.streetlink.org.uk allows the public to notify the council if they are concerned about the welfare of someone sleeping rough.
  • Rough sleeper image credit:John Sutton.

source: www.cam.ac.uk

Researchers Identify And Clear Efficiency Hurdle For Organic Solar Cells

Researchers Identify And Clear Efficiency Hurdle For Organic Solar Cells

Laboratory setup with lasers
Lasers in the Optoelectronics Lab Credit: Akshay Rao

 

Researchers have identified a key mechanism responsible for the lower efficiencies of organic solar cells and shown a way that this hurdle might be overcome.

 

Organic solar cells can do lots of things that inorganic solar cells can’t, but their commercial development has plateaued in recent years, in part due to their inferior efficiency

Alexander Gillett

The researchers, led by the University of Cambridge, identified a loss pathway in organic solar cells which makes them less efficient than silicon-based cells at converting sunlight into electricity. In addition, they identified a way to suppress this pathway by manipulating molecules inside the solar cell to prevent the loss of electrical current through an undesirable state, known as a triplet exciton.

Their results, reported in the journal Nature, suggest that it could be possible for organic solar cells to compete more closely with silicon-based cells for efficiency.

Organic solar cells, which are flexible, semi-transparent, and cheap, can greatly expand the range of applications for solar technology. They could be wrapped around the exteriors of buildings and can be used for the efficient recycling of the energy used for indoor lighting, neither of which are possible with conventional silicon panels. They are also far more environmentally friendly to produce.

“Organic solar cells can do lots of things that inorganic solar cells can’t, but their commercial development has plateaued in recent years, in part due to their inferior efficiency,” said Dr Alexander Gillett from Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory, the paper’s first author. “A typical silicon-based solar cell can reach efficiencies as high as 20 to 25%, while organic solar cells can reach efficiencies of around 19% under laboratory conditions, and real-world efficiencies of about 10 to 12%.”

Organic solar cells generate electricity by loosely mimicking the natural process of photosynthesis in plants, except they ultimately use the energy of the sun to create electricity rather than convert carbon dioxide and water into glucose. When a light particle, or photon, hits a solar cell, an electron is excited by the light and leaves behind a ‘hole’ in the material’s electronic structure. The combination of this excited electron and hole is known as an exciton. If the mutual attraction between the negatively charged electron and the positively charged hole in the exciton, akin to the attraction between the positive and negative poles of a magnet, can be overcome, it is possible to harvest these electrons and holes as an electrical current.

However, electrons in solar cells can be lost through a process called recombination, where electrons lose their energy – or excitation state – and fall back into the empty ‘hole’ state. As there is a stronger attraction between the electron and hole in carbon-based materials than in silicon, organic solar cells are more prone to recombination, which in turn affects their efficiency. This necessitates the use of two components to stop the electron and hole from recombining rapidly: an electron ‘donor’ material and an electron ‘acceptor’ material.

Using a combination of spectroscopy and computer modelling, the researchers were able to track the mechanisms at work in organic solar cells, from the absorption of photons to recombination. They found that a key loss mechanism in organic solar cells is caused by recombination to a particular type of exciton, known as a triplet exciton.

In organic solar cells, triplet excitons present a difficult problem to overcome, as it is energetically favourable for them to form from the electrons and holes. The researchers found that by engineering strong molecular interactions between the electron donor and electron acceptor materials, it is possible to keep the electron and hole further apart, preventing recombination into triplet excitons from occurring.

Computational modelling suggests that by tuning the components of the organic solar cells in this way, the timescales of recombination to these triplet exciton states could be reduced by an order of magnitude, allowing for more efficient solar cell operation.

“The fact that we can use the interactions between components in a solar cell to turn off the triplet exciton loss pathway was really surprising,” said Gillett. “Our method shows how you can manipulate molecules to stop recombination from happening.”

“Now, synthetic chemists can design the next generation of donor and acceptor materials with strong molecular interactions to suppress this loss pathway,” said co-author Dr Thuc-Quyen Nguyen from the University of California, Santa Barbara, USA. “The work shows the path forward to achieve higher device efficiency.”

The researchers say their method provides a clear strategy to achieve organic solar cells with efficiencies of 20% or more by stopping recombination into triplet exciton states. As part of their study, the authors were also able to provide design rules for the electron donor and electron acceptor materials to achieve this aim. They believe that these guidelines will allow chemistry groups to design new materials which block recombination into triplet excitons, enabling organic solar cells with efficiencies closer to silicon to be realised.

source: www.cam.ac.uk

Reference:
Alexander J Gillett et al. ‘The role of charge recombination to triplet excitons in organic solar cells.’ Nature (2021). DOI: 10.1038/s41586-021-03840-5


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.

Encourage Wealthy And Well-Connected To Use Their Influence To Tackle Climate Change

Encourage Wealthy And Well-Connected To Use Their Influence To Tackle Climate Change

Man in suit on mobile phone
Man in suit on mobile phone

 

paper published today in the journal Nature Energy identifies five ways that people of high socioeconomic status have a disproportionate impact on global greenhouse gas emissions – and therefore an outsized responsibility to facilitate progress in climate change mitigation.

 

By saying it’s only the super-rich that need to change their behaviour, we ignore the power that others have to help tackle climate change though their influence.

Kristian Nielsen

In their roles as consumers, investors, role models, organisational participants, and citizens, people in this group can help shape the choices available to themselves and others, providing options that either exacerbate or mitigate climate change.

Most research into how we can reduce our climate impact has focused on changing the consumer behaviour of the masses – recycling and switching off lights at home, for example. The authors say that the focus must shift to finding ways of motivating people of high socioeconomic status to change many kinds of behaviours, because what they do can have a much greater impact on carbon emissions.

The study defines high socioeconomic status as a person’s position in the structure of society, including not only their wealth and income, but also their ‘social resources’, which include social class, occupation, and social network. It encompasses a much broader spectrum of people than just the super-rich, including everyone with an annual income of US $109,000 and above.

“High socioeconomic status people aren’t just those with more money, but those with better social networks. Their connections can enable them to influence behaviours and policies to help mitigate climate change – and we need to find ways to encourage them to do this,” said Dr Kristian Nielsen, a postdoctoral researcher in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Psychology, first author of the paper.

He added: “By saying it’s only the super-rich that need to change their behaviour, we ignore the power that others have to help tackle climate change though their influence.”

The climate impact of air travel is now well known, but over 50% of greenhouse gas emissions from flying are caused by just 1% of the world’s population. The study highlights the need to change social norms associated with frequent flying – usually by people of high socio-economic status – but also to look beyond their role as consumers.

“People of higher socioeconomic status could also act as role models, making more climate-friendly choices that influence others – for example driving electric cars or eating a vegan diet. You don’t need a massive income to be a role model, you just need to be well-connected,” said Nielsen.

Investments also provide an opportunity for those of higher socioeconomic status to mitigate climate change. Although attention has focused on shifting the investment of large pension funds away from fossil fuel companies, the researchers say that the investment portfolios of individuals – particularly those with immense wealth – can also have a very significant influence.

In addition, high socioeconomic status individuals – whether owners or employees – can help to mitigate climate change through their organisations, for example by changing suppliers, business culture and investments.

And as citizens, people of high socioeconomic status have the networks to help them organise social movements, and better access politicians and decision-makers. Their financial resources also help: making donations helps smooth the path to advancing social change.

“Our study focused on people of high socioeconomic status because they have generated many of the problems of fossil fuel dependence and associated climate change, which affect the rest of humanity. And they are also well positioned to do something about it,” said Nielsen.

He added: “When certain people change their behaviour for the good of the climate it can have spill-over effects that go way beyond the effects of the average person, and lead to systemic change.”

This research was funded by the Carlsberg Foundation.

Reference
Nielsen, K.S. et al: ‘High socioeconomic status people are key to locking in or rapidly reducing energy-driven greenhouse gas emissions.’ Nature Energy, Sept 2021. DOI: 10.1038/s41560-021-00900-y

source: www.cam.ac.uk


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.

Vice-Chancellor’s Annual Address to the University 2021

Vice-Chancellor’s Annual Address to the University 2021

 

Professor Stephen Toope, Vice-Chancellor, today outlined the University’s plan of action for the next academic year, announcing it would be a time of recovery, renewal and impact.

 

Impact is not just a buzzword, or an aspiration – it is a concrete outcome, and Cambridge has it in spades

Stephen J Toope

Delivering the Annual Address to the University, Prof Toope said Cambridge was determined to be a champion of free speech; a University that is thinking carefully about how and why it engages with the world; and a University committed to taking academic achievement to new heights.

He said: “Impact is not just a buzzword, or an aspiration – it is a concrete outcome, and Cambridge has it in spades. It is about the technologies we create, and the discoveries we make. It is about the ideas we develop, and the shared cultural legacies we interpret and pass on. It is about making a difference in the world – even when that difference is not immediate. It is at the heart of the story we need to be telling about our University. It is what we will continue to pursue as we set out on our journey of renewal and recovery.”

During his address, Prof Toope also reflected on the challenges and successes of the past year, describing the University’s resourceful and resilient response to the COVID-19 global pandemic, and paying tribute to Cambridge researchers’ work in leading the national COVID-19 Genomics UK consortium (COG-UK) to understand how the COVID virus is transmitted, and how it evolves.

The work of Cambridge Zero – the University’s flagship climate change initiative – which has been taking an active role in advising the government and shaping the international climate agenda ahead of COP26 was also highlighted, as was the launch of the Cambridge Foundation Year, offering talented students from backgrounds of educational and social disadvantage a new route to university.

Navigating the complexities of international engagement

source: www.cam.ac.uk


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.

Study Suggests R Rate For Tracking Pandemic Should Be Dropped In Favour Of ‘nowcasts’

Study Suggests R Rate For Tracking Pandemic Should Be Dropped In Favour Of ‘nowcasts’

Covid-19 vaccine
Covid-19 vaccine

 

When the COVID-19 pandemic emerged in 2020, the R rate became well-known shorthand for the reproduction of the disease. Yet a new study suggests it’s time for ‘a farewell to R’ in favour of a different approach based on the growth rate of infection rather than contagiousness.

 

These are the numbers that help guide policymakers in making the decisions that will save lives and prevent overcrowded hospitals as a pandemic plays out

Paul Kattuman

The study, published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface and led by researchers from the University of Cambridge, is based on time-series models developed using classical statistical methods. The models produce ‘nowcasts’ and forecasts of the daily number of new cases and deaths that have already proved successful in predicting new COVID-19 waves and spikes in Germany, Florida in the USA, and several states in India.

The study is co-authored by Andrew Harvey and Paul Kattuman, whose time-series model reflecting epidemic trajectories, known as the Harvey-Kattuman model, was introduced last year in a paper published in Harvard Data Science Review.

“The basic R rate quickly wanes in usefulness as soon as a pandemic begins,” said Kattuman, from Cambridge Judge Business School. “The basic R rate looks at the number of infections expected to result from a single infectious person in a completely susceptible population, and this changes as immunity builds up and measures such as social distancing are imposed.”

In later stages of a pandemic, the researchers conclude that use of the effective R rate which takes these factors into account is also not the best route: the focus should be not on contagiousness, but rather on the growth rate of new cases and deaths, examined alongside their predicted time path so a trajectory can be forecasted.

“These are the numbers that really help guide policymakers in making the crucial decisions that will hopefully save lives and prevent overcrowded hospitals as a pandemic plays out – which, as we have seen with COVID-19, can occur over months and even years,” said Kattuman. “The data generated through this time-series model has already proved accurate and effective in countries around the world.”

The study examines waves and spikes in tracking an epidemic, noting that after an epidemic has peaked, daily cases begin to fall as policymakers seek to prevent new spikes morphing into waves. The monitoring of waves and spikes raises different issues, primarily because a wave applies to a whole nation or a relatively large geographical area, whereas a spike is localised.

Therefore, a localised outbreak in a country with low national infection numbers can result in a jump in the national R rate, as occurred in the Westphalia area of Germany in June 2020 after an outbreak at a meat processing factory. However, this sort of jump does not indicate that there has been a sudden change in the way the infection spreads and so has few implications for overall policy.

The Harvey-Kattuman model has been adapted into two trackers. The two Cambridge academics worked with the National Institute of Economic and Social Research to produce a UK tracker which is published biweekly by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research. In addition, they produce an India tracker which is published by the Centre for Health Leadership and Excellence at Cambridge Judge Business School. District-level pandemic trajectory forecasts using the model are used by public health policymakers in three states in India – Punjab, Tamil Nadu and Kerala – to identify regions at high risk and to frame containment and relaxation policies.

source: www.cam.ac.uk

Reference:
Andrew Harvey and Paul Kattuman. ‘A Farewell to R: Time Series Models for Tracking and Forecasting Epidemics.’ Journal of the Royal Society Interface (2021). DOI: 10.1098/rsif.2021.0179


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.

Cambridge Innovation Summit Has Taken Environmental Good Practice To Heart

Cambridge Innovation Summit Has Taken Environmental Good Practice To Heart


 

The Cambridge Innovation Summit is now in its seventh year and continues to provide an opportunity to share ideas and projects with a global audience of experts, thought leaders, entrepreneurs, investors and commentators.

Agriculture is facing unprecedented challenges – some of which could be solved by technology including plant gene editing
Agriculture is facing unprecedented challenges – some of which could be solved by technology including plant gene editing

This year’s virtual event took place on a platform that presented live events over two days, with speakers and networking opportunities throughout.

At the summit’s heart is a somewhat brutal mass pitching session with 30 companies given five minutes to present their business model to delegates, hosted amiably by Adam Swash, director corporate venturing programmes at the Centre for Business Innovation – with no timing exemptions beyond exactly five minutes.

The sense of being in the Colosseum is always apparent in any Dragons’ Den-type setting. Regardless of any geniality, the rules are the rules, and no amount of bluster and deflection – popular qualities though they may be in public life today – changes that simple fact. So it was surprising how many people launched into their preamble and were still effectively on the preamble four-and-a-half minutes into their pitch.

It is surprising how many people failed to introduce themselves properly at the start of their talk – that is name, job title and company name for anyone who has not been keeping up with the business etiquette that has been around for half a century at least.

Having said that, the content was fascinating. Almost every one of the 30 pitches were for organisations that addressed the incoming climate change crisis. Some were looking for partners, some investors, and some just wanted to engage with a collection of the planet’s brighter business minds.

First up was Sheena Macpherson, CEO and founder of MIOTIFY – “Saving the world one algorithm at a time” – who outlined the challenges of developing trust in AI outputs.

Cambridge Innovation Summit 2021
Cambridge Innovation Summit 2021

Next was Kaitlyn Salter, marketing manager of digital freight forwarder Zencargo, who analysed how agility in an interconnected world has moved from a “nice-to-have” to a “need-to-have”.

Third was Will Richardson, CEO and creator of Compare Your Footprint, which is helping organisations become greener. Compare Your Footprint has the carbon footprint calculators to benchmark your footprint. Will insisted that every company should be taking carbon reporting seriously – “it should be on every company’s listing at Companies House”, he said, adding: “Every single company in the UK and the world should be reporting on their carbon footprint…. Every company should be part of a carbon-free future.”

Delegates then listened to Liz Heard, programmes manager of Planet Patrol, whose mission is to clean up the planet. An app helps users name and shame planetary polluters large and small. The litter analytics tool really shows what is actually going on on the basis that if you do not measure it, you cannot identify improvements.

The pitch from Rajan Pandhare, CEO of QiQ Technologies, outlined QiQ’s business mode – “driving sustainability using AI” – which delivers cost savings of 5-20 per cent, and boosts productivity by 10-20 per cent.

Scott Cain, founder and CEO of Active Things, then took the virtual stage to explain how urban travel could be transformed by finding, accessing, and paying for bike parking and other ‘active travel’ amenities.

He was followed by Jo Morley, head of marketing and programmes at City To See, an environmental organisation on a mission to stop marine plastic pollution. Jo showcased their Refill app which helps you eat, drink and shop near your home without pointless packaging.

The first pitch not to include an environmental theme directly was from David Liu, CEO of Sonde Health. Using a short voice sample, Sonde’s symptom detection technology can tell if you are at risk for leading health conditions, including asthma, COPD, Covid-19, depression, and anxiety. All from your voice. Who knew?

AntoBot robot controller
AntoBot robot controller

Meanwhile, Omegacrop has an early warning system for wheat-damaging weeds and diseases.

“We can provide information on a plant-by-plant level,” Jared Bainbridge, co-founder and CEO, told the Summit audience, adding that he is “looking for partnerships to achieve scale”.

Then, Marc Jones, business director at agricultural robot company AntoBot – part of the AgriTechE network – outlined how he is “looking for corporate and retail partners to co-develop production and maximise the benefits through food-chain integration”.

Some corporate-speak is inevitable at such events, but it was minimal. Introducing Ecogea, Adam said: “They provide ‘natural biological performance enhancement’, so I have no idea what they’re going to talk about!”

He was not alone, and for some –OK, me – that feeling never quite went away. Safe to say Ecogea has developed BioComplex, which ‘feeds and protects microbes in their host environment’.

More saving-the-world solutions were available from Airponix – “growing produce in mid-air”– and others including Higher Steaks, Brill Battery, Qatalog, KisanHub and Anaphite. Somewhere along the line, amid this embarrassment of innovation riches, I was pinged by Daria Sopelkina, founder and CEO of nutritional science company Tumchi, whose personalised nutrition platform is making progress, including via the Accelerate Cambridge programme at Cambridge Judge Business School.

Later, Daria said: “It was an absolute pleasure to participate in the summit. We have found out about the pitching opportunity through our accelerator programme, Accelerate Cambridge. The networking was brilliant. We have met very interesting people in our area. We are also going to begin our first fundraising round soon and it was a great place to pitch Tumchi.

“We are in developing. Our first release will be this August. Our first customers will be able to register, sign up and order at-home blood testing kits and receive personalised nutrition plans. Our first target audience is people with pre-diabetes.”

Higher Steaks’ bacon
Higher Steaks’ bacon

Also pitching was Animal Alternative Technologies, whose bio-reactor will produce the first structured meat alternative – ie steaks not mince – for commercial use.

“They adopt Renaissance Farm, our manufacturing system,” said Clarisse Beurrier, co-founder and CEO. “It works rather like a coffee machine. Unlike most companies who sell their cultured meat, we provide them the system to make their own meat and scale it up. It’s a complete system for cultured meat production.”

This was just day one: the theme for day two (July 1) was ‘Innovation under Pressure’ and delegates could choose between visiting booths, listening to speakers on stage, setting up side meetings, responding to polls… This was a busy, sometimes frantic, but always engaging event – sponsored by Pepsico Ventures and Silicon Valley Bank – with a great deal of the random networking that makes physical events so enjoyable.

The event was hosted by Peter Hewkin, CEO of the Centre for Business Innovation, who said: “The Cambridge Innovation Summit brought together 140 virtual delegates from 13 countries seeking to understand how innovation under pressure – eg of Covid and Brexit – had fared.

“The overwhelming opinion was that ‘pressure has been good for innovation so far – but we should not assume that ramping up pressure will always increase innovation’.”

Climate Changed The Size Of Our Bodies and, To Some Extent, Our Brains

Climate Changed The Size Of Our Bodies and, To Some Extent, Our Brains

 

Human fossil skulls and thigh bones

 

The average body size of humans has fluctuated significantly over the last million years and is strongly linked to temperature. Colder, harsher climates drove the evolution of larger body sizes, while warmer climates led to smaller bodies. Brain size also changed dramatically but did not evolve in tandem with body size.

 

Our study indicates that climate – particularly temperature – has been the main driver of changes in body size for the past million years.

Andrea Manica

An interdisciplinary team of researchers, led by the Universities of Cambridge and Tübingen, has gathered measurements of body and brain size for over 300 fossils from the genus Homo found across the globe. By combining this data with a reconstruction of the world’s regional climates over the last million years, they have pinpointed the specific climate experienced by each fossil when it was a living human.

The study reveals that the average body size of humans has fluctuated significantly over the last million years, with larger bodies evolving in colder regions. Larger size is thought to act as a buffer against colder temperatures: less heat is lost from a body when its mass is large relative to its surface area. The results are published today in the journal Nature Communications.

Our species, Homo sapiens, emerged around 300,000 years ago in Africa. The genus Homo has existed for much longer, and includes the Neanderthals and other extinct, related species such as Homo habilis and Homo erectus.

A defining trait of the evolution of our genus is a trend of increasing body and brain size; compared to earlier species such as Homo habilis, we are 50% heavier and our brains are three times larger. But the drivers behind such changes remain highly debated.

“Our study indicates that climate – particularly temperature – has been the main driver of changes in body size for the past million years,” said Professor Andrea Manica, a researcher in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Zoology who led the study.

He added: “We can see from people living today that those in warmer climates tend to be smaller, and those living in colder climates tend to be bigger. We now know that the same climatic influences have been at work for the last million years.”

The researchers also looked at the effect of environmental factors on brain size in the genus Homo, but correlations were generally weak. Brain size tended to be larger when Homo was living in habitats with less vegetation, like open steppes and grasslands, but also in ecologically more stable areas. In combination with archaeological data, the results suggest that people living in these habitats hunted large animals as food – a complex task that might have driven the evolution of larger brains.

“We found that different factors determine brain size and body size – they’re not under the same evolutionary pressures. The environment has a much greater influence on our body size than our brain size,” said Dr Manuel Will at the University of Tubingen, Germany, first author of the study.

He added: “There is an indirect environmental influence on brain size in more stable and open areas: the amount of nutrients gained from the environment had to be sufficient to allow for the maintenance and growth of our large and particularly energy-demanding brains.”

This research also suggests that non-environmental factors were more important for driving larger brains than climate, prime candidates being the added cognitive challenges of increasingly complex social lives, more diverse diets, and more sophisticated technology.

The researchers say there is good evidence that human body and brain size continue to evolve. The human physique is still adapting to different temperatures, with on average larger-bodied people living in colder climates today. Brain size in our species appears to have been shrinking since the beginning of the Holocene (around 11,650 years ago). The increasing dependence on technology, such as an outsourcing of complex tasks to computers, may cause brains to shrink even more over the next few thousand years.

“It’s fun to speculate about what will happen to body and brain sizes in the future, but we should be careful not to extrapolate too much based on the last million years because so many factors can change,” said Manica.

This research was funded by the European Research Council and the Antarctic Science Platform.

Reference

Will, M. et al: ‘Different environmental variables predict body and brain size evolution in Homo.’ Nature Communications, July 2021. DOI: 10.1038/s41467-021-24290-7

source: cam.ac.uk


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.

Early Humans Were Sheltered From Worst Effects Of Volcanic Supereruption

Early Humans Were Sheltered From Worst Effects Of Volcanic Supereruption

 

Site of the Toba supereruption
Site of the Toba supereruption, in present-day Indonesia Credit: Clive Oppenheimer

 

A massive volcanic eruption in Indonesia about 74,000 years ago likely caused severe climate disruption in many areas of the globe, but early human populations were sheltered from the worst effects, suggests a new study published in the journal PNAS.

 

Ultimately, this will help to mitigate the environmental and societal hazards from future volcanic eruptions

Anja Schmidt

The eruption of the Toba volcano was the largest volcanic eruption in the past two million years, but its impacts on climate and human evolution have been unclear. Resolving this debate is important for understanding environmental changes during a key interval in human evolution.

“We were able to use a large number of climate model simulations to resolve what seemed like a paradox,” said lead author Benjamin Black from Rutgers University. “We know this eruption happened and that past climate modeling has suggested the climate consequences could have been severe, but archaeological and palaeoclimate records from Africa don’t show such a dramatic response.

“Our results suggest that we might not have been looking in the right place to see the climate response. Africa and India are relatively sheltered, whereas North America, Europe and Asia bear the brunt of the cooling. One intriguing aspect of this is that Neanderthals and Denisovans were living in Europe and Asia at this time, so our paper suggests evaluating the effects of the Toba eruption on those populations could merit future investigation.”

The researchers analysed 42 global climate model simulations in which they varied magnitude of sulphur emissions, time of year of the eruption, background climate state and sulfur injection altitude to make a probabilistic assessment of the range of climate disruptions the Toba eruption may have caused.

The results suggest there was likely significant regional variation in climate impacts. The simulations predict cooling in the Northern Hemisphere of at least 4°C, with regional cooling as high as 10°C depending on the model parameters.

In contrast, even under the most severe eruption conditions, cooling in the Southern Hemisphere — including regions populated by early humans – was unlikely to exceed 4°C, although regions in southern Africa and India may have seen decreases in precipitation at the highest sulphur emission level.

The results explain independent archaeological evidence suggesting the Toba eruption had modest effects on the development of hominid species in Africa. According to the authors, their ensemble simulation approach could be used to better understand other past and future explosive eruptions.

“Our work is not only a forensic analysis of Toba’s aftermath some 74,000 years ago, but also a means of understanding the unevenness of the effects such very large eruptions may have on today’s society,” said co-author Dr Anja Schmidt from the University of Cambridge. “Ultimately, this will help to mitigate the environmental and societal hazards from future volcanic eruptions.”

The study included researchers from the US National Center for Atmospheric Research, the University of Leeds and University of Cambridge in the UK, and was supported by the National Center for Atmospheric Research and the National Science Foundation.

 

Reference:
Benjamin A Black et al. ‘Global climate disruption and regional climate shelters after the Toba supereruption.’ PNAS (2021). DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2013046118 |

Adapted from a Rutgers University press release.

source: cam.ac.uk


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.

Rare Genetic Variants Confer Largest Increase In Type 2 Diabetes Risk Seen To Date

Rare Genetic Variants Confer Largest Increase In Type 2 Diabetes Risk Seen To Date

 

DNA jigsaw
DNA jigsaw Credit: qimono

 

Scientists at the University of Cambridge have identified rare genetic variants – carried by one in 3,000 people – that have a larger impact on the risk of developing type 2 diabetes than any previously identified genetic effect.

 

For complex diseases such as type 2 diabetes, many variants play a role [in disease risk], but often only increasing our risk by a tiny amount. This particular variant, while rare, has a big impact on an individual’s risk

John Perry

Type 2 diabetes is thought to be driven in part by inherited genetic factors, but many of these genes are yet unknown. Previous large-scale studies have depended on efficient ‘array genotyping’ methods to measure genetic variations across the whole genome. This approach typically does a good job at capturing the common genetic differences between people, though individually these each confer only small increases in diabetes risk.

Recent technical advances have allowed more comprehensive genetic measurement by reading the complete DNA sequences of over 20,000 genes that code for proteins in humans. Proteins are essential molecules that enable our bodies to function. In particular, this new approach has allowed for the first time a large-scale approach to study the impact of rare genetic variants on several diseases, including type 2 diabetes.

By looking at data from more than 200,000 adults in the UK Biobank study, researchers from the Medical Research Council (MRC) Epidemiology Unit at the University of Cambridge used this approach to identify genetic variants associated with the loss of the Y chromosome. This is a known biomarker of biological ageing that occurs in a small proportion of circulating white blood cells in men and indicates a weakening in the body’s cellular repair systems. This biomarker has been previously linked to age-related diseases such as type 2 diabetes and cancer.

In results published today in Nature Communications, the researchers identified rare variants in the gene GIGYF1 that substantially increase susceptibility to loss of the Y chromosome, and also increase an individual’s risk of developing type 2 diabetes six-fold. In contrast, common variants associated with type 2 diabetes confer much more modest increases in risk, typically much lower than two-fold.

Around 1 in 3,000 individuals carries such a GIGYF1 genetic variant. Their risk of developing type 2 diabetes is around 30%, compared to around 5% in the wider population. In addition, people who carried these variants had other signs of more widespread ageing, including weaker muscle strength and more body fat.

GIGYF1 is thought to control insulin and cell growth factor signalling. The researchers say their findings identify this as a potential target for future studies to understand the common links between metabolic and cellular ageing, and to inform future treatments.

Dr John Perry, from the MRC Epidemiology Unit and a senior author on the paper, said: “Reading an individual’s DNA is a powerful way of identifying genetic variants that increase our risk of developing certain diseases. For complex diseases such as type 2 diabetes, many variants play a role, but often only increasing our risk by a tiny amount. This particular variant, while rare, has a big impact on an individual’s risk.”

Professor Nick Wareham, Director of the MRC Epidemiology Unit, added: “Our findings highlight the exciting scientific potential of sequencing the genomes of very large numbers of people. We are confident that this approach will bring a rich new era of informative genetic discoveries that will help us better understand common diseases such as type 2 diabetes. By doing this, we can potentially offer better ways to treat – or even to prevent – the condition.”

Ongoing research will aim to understand how the loss of function variants in GIGYF1 lead to such a substantial increase in the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Their future research will also examine other links between biomarkers of biological ageing in adults and metabolic disorders.

The research was funded by the Medical Research Council. UK Biobank is supported by Wellcome, the Medical Research Council, British Heart Foundation, Cancer Research UK, the UK Department of Health, Northwest Regional Development Agency and the Scottish Government.

Reference
Zhao, Y et al. GIGYF1 loss of function is associated with clonal mosaicism and adverse metabolic health. Nature Communications 2021; 07 Jul 2021; DOI: 10.1038/s41467-021-24504-y

source: cam.ac.uk


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.

Cambridge and UAE In Talks Over Pioneering Collaboration

Cambridge and UAE In Talks Over Pioneering Collaboration

Old Schools and Senate House, University of Cambridge

 

Partnership to focus on sustainability, education, Islamic art and culture

 

The University of Cambridge is in talks with the United Arab Emirates about a potential strategic partnership. These ongoing conversations have emerged from a shared commitment to creating a more sustainable future by helping to solve some of the greatest challenges facing our planet.

This collaboration is designed to develop innovative solutions that enable the transition away from fossil fuels; the continued development of high quality teaching and learning; the ongoing progression of social cohesion through the study of arts and culture; and the advancement of globally competitive research, education, and entrepreneurship

A University spokesperson said: ‘This is an exciting and unique opportunity for world-leading collaborations on efforts to transform economies and societies. The potential partnership will help prepare education systems for a radically changing labour market, promote greater global understanding through appreciation for Islamic art and culture, and develop innovative technological solutions to the challenges facing our planet, helping the transition away from fossil fuels.’

The United Arab Emirates is a regional and international hub for collaboration in research, art, education and business, in areas as diverse as Mars exploration and celebrating emerging Arab artists. One of the world’s largest investors in renewable energy such as solar power, it has bid to host COP28 with a focus on building sustainable economies.

The University of Cambridge and the UAE share an ambition to fight climate change and create sustainable solutions that will help the global economy transition away from fossil fuels. We are excited about the prospect of our students and researchers benefiting from these new connections and perspectives.

The three initial areas of discussions will focus on:

Sustainability

The potential partnership will research and pioneer new ways of moving progressively towards a post-fossil fuel economy and embracing the fourth industrial revolution. A sustainable futures research programme will start with work to advance manufacturing, urban infrastructure and resource management.

Education

The potential partnership will focus collaboratively on early years education, teacher education, Arabic literacy and blended learning, with a view to developing robust, resilient and coherent systems that can support a 21st-century labour market.

Arts and culture

The potential partnership will collaboratively seek to strengthen global understanding of Islamic art and culture, and support the long-term resilience of cultural institutions in both countries for greater social cohesion.

source: cam.ac.uk


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 websiteunder its Terms and conditions, and on a range of channels including social mediathat permit your use and sharing of our content under their respective Terms.

Continue reading Cambridge and UAE In Talks Over Pioneering Collaboration