By Date

Flawed diamonds provide new approach to magnetic resonance imaging

UC Berkeley Science News - Tue, 05/22/2018 - 08:59
Chemists develop technology that shows great promise for enhancing the signal from MRI and nuclear magnetic resonance using lasers without expensive magnets
Categories: Science News

Hippo poop a growing problem in African rivers

UC Berkeley Science News - Mon, 05/21/2018 - 11:05
As more water is diverted from rivers and lakes, hippos increasingly frolic in cesspools of their own making
Categories: Science News

Closing coal, oil power plants leads to healthier babies

College of Natural Resources - Fri, 05/18/2018 - 13:44

Shuttering coal- and oil-fired power plants lowers the rate of preterm births in neighboring communities and improves fertility, according to two new University of California, Berkeley, studies.

The researchers compared preterm births and fertility before and after eight power plants in California closed between 2001 and 2011, including San Francisco’s Hunters Point plant in 2006.

Overall, the percentage of preterm births—babies born before 37 weeks of gestation—dropped from 7 percent in a year-long period before plant closure to 5.1 percent for the year after shutdown. Rates for non-Hispanic African-American and Asian women dropped even more: from 14.4 percent to 11.3 percent.

Preterm births, which can often result in babies spending time in a neonatal intensive care unit, contributes to infant mortality and can cause health problems later in life. The World Health Organization estimates that the cost of preterm births, defined as births between 32 and 37 weeks of gestation, accounts for some $2 billion in healthcare costs worldwide.

The 20-25 percent drop in preterm birthrates is larger than expected, but consistent with other studies linking birth problems to air pollution around power plants, said UC Berkeley postdoctoral fellow Joan Casey, the lead author of a study, published in the American Journal of Epidemiology.

Another paper published May 2 in the journal Environmental Healthused similar data and found  that fertility—the number of live births per 1,000 women—increased around coal and oil power plants after closure.

“We were excited to do a good news story in environmental health,” Casey said. “Most people look at air pollution and adverse health outcomes, but this is the flip side: We said, let's look at what happens when we have this external shock that removes air pollution from a community and see if we can see any improvements in health.”

Retiring fossil fuel power plants

The findings, she said, could help policy makers in states like California more strategically plan the decommissioning of power plants as they build more renewable sources of energy, in order to have the biggest health impact.

We believe that these papers have important implications for understanding the potential short-term community health benefits of climate and energy policy shifts and provide some very good news on that front,” said co-author Rachel Morello-Frosch, a professor of environmental science, policy and management and a leading expert on the differential effects of pollution on communities of color and the poor. “These studies indicate short-term beneficial impacts on preterm birth rates overall and particularly for women of color.”

In a commentary accompanying the AJE article, Pauline Mendola of the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development said: “Casey and colleagues have shown us that retiring older coal and oil power plants can result in a significant reduction in preterm birth and that these benefits also have the potential to lower what has been one of our most intractable health disparities. Perhaps it’s time for the health of our children to be the impetus behind reducing the common sources of ambient air pollution. Their lives depend on it.”

The researchers compared preterm birth rates in the first year following the closure date of each power plant with the rate during the year starting two years before the plant’s retirement, so as to eliminate seasonal effects on preterm births. They also corrected for the mother’s age, socioeconomic status, education level and race/ethnicity.

Dividing the surrounding region into three concentric rings 5 kilometers (3 miles) wide, Casey delved into state birth records to determine the rate of preterm births in each ring. 

Those living in the closest ring, from zero to 5 kilometers from the plant, saw the largest improvement: a drop from 7 to 5.1 percent. Those living in the 5-10 kilometer zone showed less improvement. Those living in the 10-20 km zone were used as a control population.

They also considered the effects of winds on preterm birth rates, and though downwind areas seemed to exhibit greater improvements, the differences were not statistically significant.

As a control, they replicated their analysis around eight power plants that had not closed, and found no before-versus-after difference, which supported the results of their main analyses.

There did not appear to be any effect on births before 32 weeks, which Casey said may reflect the fact that very early births are a result of problems, genetic or environmental, more serious than air pollution.

Casey noted that the study did not break out the effects of individual pollutants, which can include particulate matter, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, benzene, lead, mercury and other known health hazards, but took a holistic approach to assess the combined effect of a mix of pollutants.

“It would be good to look at this relationship in other states and see if we can apply a similar rationale to retirement of power plants in other places,” Casey said.

Other co-authors of the AJE paper are Deborah Karasek, Kristina Dang and Paula Braveman of UC San Francisco, Elizabeth Ogburn of the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore and Dana Goin of UC Berkeley.

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Image:  a coal plant at sunset Date:  Tuesday, May 22, 2018 - 09:30 byline:  By Robert Sanders, UC Berkeley Media Relations Legacy:  section header item:  Date:  Friday, May 18, 2018 - 13:30 headline_position:  Top Left headline_color_style:  Normal headline_width:  Long caption_color_style:  Normal caption_position:  Bottom Left News/Story tag(s):  Research News

Hungry, Hungry Hippos

College of Natural Resources - Fri, 05/18/2018 - 09:41
A herd of hippos gathers in a river.

Hippos gather near a pool during the wet season. Photo by Keenan Stears.

The average hippo weighs more than 3,000 pounds and consumes about 100 pounds of vegetation daily. This naturally results in large quantities of dung being deposited into the rivers and lakes where hippos spend their days.

In general, the nutrients delivered via hippo dung to such aquatic ecosystems are perceived to be beneficial. For millennia, they provided a natural source of fertilizer that appears to fuel life in aquatic food webs. That may be changing.

In sub-Saharan Africa, deforestation, water-intensive agriculture and now climate change are significantly altering water cycles and causing many rivers to begin to dry. A new study from Justin Brashares and Todd Dawson, and integrative biology professor Mary Power, with colleagues at UC Santa Barbara and Sokoine University of Agriculture in Tanzania, examines how these forces of global change are redefining the way hippos—and their dung—shape the ecology of freshwater ecosystems. The findings appear in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“This work explores how hippo dung shapes freshwater chemistry and links these changes to associated patterns of aquatic biodiversity change,” said Keenan Stears, a postdoctoral researcher in UC Santa Barbara’s Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Marine Biology (EEMB). “It also illustrates that the net impact of hippos on river ecosystems is dynamically controlled by river hydrology and reveals the capacity of human disturbances on river flow to drastically alter the role of ecosystem-linking species.”

The researcher team studied river flow and hippo density in the Great Ruaha River in Tanzania’s Ruaha National Park, which protects an area about the size of Connecticut and is home to large populations of some of Africa’s most iconic species. The Great Ruaha River is the backbone of life in this dry region. Since 1993, however, the once constantly flowing river has ceased to flow during the dry season. The researchers tested nearly a dozen attributes of water quality and measured the diversity and abundance of aquatic life in hippo pools over multiple years, both when river flow was high and during dry periods when the river stopped flowing.

“During the dry season when there was no flow, the pools were completely separated,” Stears explained. “We found a huge buildup of hippo dung, and therefore nutrient concentrations within high-density hippo pools. The high influx of nutrients caused the dissolved oxygen concentration to decline to sublethal levels for most fish species.”

EEMB assistant professor Douglas McCauley, a senior researcher on the project, called these results an alarm bell for African wildlife. “Hippos are to Africa what polar bears are to the Arctic,” he said. “Everything we thought we knew about how African ecosystems worked appears to be changing. Global change has turned productive hippo pools, once teeming with fish and life, into fetid black cesspools.”

Only a few species of fish and insects are able to survive in the hippo pools when the river dries, because of extreme losses of dissolved oxygen in these pools. Stears and his colleagues noted large reductions in fish diversity and abundance inside the pools that were over fueled by dung when river flow ceased.

When the rains returned and the river resumed its flow, the researchers saw a reset in many impacts of hippo dung on water quality and biodiversity detected during the dry season. “This suggests some kind of resilience within the system that allows it to recover after the hydrological disturbance every dry season,” Stears said. “This resilience signifies that there is hope for this system, but without intervention soon, the chronic stress caused by river drying and over-fertilizing of hippo dung may cause long-term species loss in this river system.”

According to Stears, the findings from this study highlight the value of accelerating more efficient water-management policies and land-management practices not only for the conservation of hippos but also to ensure the sustained health and functioning of African watersheds in a changing environment.

“A lot of our results directly assess how changing river flow alters the hippos' influence on the ecological diversity and functioning of watersheds,” Stears said. “However, these findings also call attention to the profound ways in which the dry-season impacts of hippos may influence local communities that rely on rivers as a food source. Tilapia are a commonly consumed fish throughout Africa and, during the dry season, we found that the presence of hippos reduced tilapia abundance by 41 percent across the watershed. That’s not only bound to have ecological consequences but will also impact the human populations that rely on these rivers.”

Read the story at its source, UC Santa Barbara.

Image:  A herd of hippos gathers in a river. Date:  Tuesday, May 15, 2018 - 09:30 byline:  Julie Cohen Legacy:  section header item:  Date:  Friday, May 18, 2018 - 09:30 headline_position:  Top Left headline_color_style:  Normal headline_width:  Long caption_color_style:  Normal caption_position:  Bottom Left News/Story tag(s):  Research News

Nogales: Detailing important structures in Alzheimer's research

Department of Molecular and Cell Biology - Thu, 05/17/2018 - 11:54

New research from the lab of MCB Professor & HHMI Investigator Eva Nogales has advanced our understanding of the tau protein, which is crucial in the development of Alzheimer's disease and other neurological disorders.

The team used cryo-electron microscopy to determine how the tau protein interacts with the microtubules of neurons. Under normal conditions, this interaction helps stabilize the cytoskeleton of neurons and prevent abnormal Alzheimer's-causing protein tangles.

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What we inherited from our bug-eating ancestors

UC Berkeley Science News - Wed, 05/16/2018 - 11:00
Most mammals have one or more genes allowing them to digest the crunchy parts of insects, suggesting that our common ancestor in the Age of Dinosaurs was an insect eater
Categories: Science News

Radar reveals details of mountain collapse after North Korea’s most recent nuclear test

UC Berkeley Science News - Thu, 05/10/2018 - 11:00
Using synthetic aperture radar and seismic measurements, scientists determined that the underground nuclear explosion lowered the mountain 20 inches
Categories: Science News

Reconnection tames the turbulent magnetic fields around Earth

UC Berkeley Science News - Wed, 05/09/2018 - 10:00
Combining synthetic aperture radar with seismic measurements, geophysicists determine that Sept. 3 nuclear test pushed mountain surface outward up to 11 feet and left it 20 inches shorter
Categories: Science News

Eva Nogales Elected 2020 ASCB President

Department of Molecular and Cell Biology - Tue, 05/08/2018 - 11:50
Eva Nogales

HHMI Investigator and Professor of Biochemistry, Biophysics and Structural Biology Eva Nogales was recently elected by ASCB members to serve as the 2020 ASCB President. 

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Grads Headed for 68th Lindau Laureate Meeting

Department of Molecular and Cell Biology - Tue, 05/08/2018 - 11:10

MCB graduate students Franziska (Franzi) Lorbeer, in the Hockemeyer lab, and Ryan Morrie, in the Feller lab, were chosen as two of 600 outstanding young scientists under age 35 to attend the 68th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting in Germany. The international forum for scientific exchange that occurs in June will and attract scientists from 84 countries and a record 41 Nobel Laureates.

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testing mapping visuals

College of Natural Resources - Fri, 05/04/2018 - 14:14

Professor Daniel Kammen combines science with environmental policy in the quest for sustainable power

By Tom Levy Photos by Mackenzie Smith

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MTM student to speak at commencement

Department of Bioengineering - Thu, 05/03/2018 - 10:28
Once again a graduating MTM student has been chosen to speak at the College of Engineering Graduate Commencement Ceremony. Tsai-Chu Yeh will deliver the Master's address at the ceremony on May 15, 2018.
Categories: Science News

Student Spotlight: Sabrina Jones

College of Natural Resources - Wed, 05/02/2018 - 13:03
Sabrina Jones 2nd year, Molecular Environmental Biology

In our last Student Spotlight of the 2017-2018 academic year, Sabrina Jones shares her experiences as a Golden Bear Orientation mentor and a CNR Peer Advising Leader, and offers advice for incoming CNR students.

Sabrina Jones Sabrina Jones at Sonic Runway, an art installation in San Jose.

Now in its second year, Golden Bear Orientation (GBO) is UC Berkeley’s new campus-wide program for incoming first-year and transfer students. What can students expect when they arrive on campus for orientation?

A week of 18-hour days full of activities. A silent disco party. Diversity and inclusion discussions. Walking miles walking around Berkeley.

What’s it like to be an orientation leader at GBO?

Being a GBO leader and mentor was an incredible amount of work—and an incredible experience. Before orientation started, all GBO leaders attended several 3-hour training sessions. GBO itself was a week of waking up at 7:00 am for GBO leader meetings before leading incoming first-year students around campus, traveling as far as San Francisco on field trips, and coordinating activities late into the night—sometimes as late as 1:00 am!

Our week was packed with challenging discussions about diversity, inclusion, safety, sexual violence, identity, mental health, and many other topics. This was overwhelming for some students who had never engaged deeply with these issues. However, I did find this exposure beneficial and important as UC Berkeley cares deeply about improving the campus and community in these areas.

Sabrina Jones Kayaking on the Medina River in Texas. Kayaking on the Medina River in Texas.

Despite the tiring hours, we also had a lot of fun playing card games, learning the embarrassing “Common Bond Dance,” going on hikes, singing off-key karaoke, dancing at the silent disco, and breaking a Guinness World Record—the list goes on and on. I truly enjoyed welcoming first-year students to campus and becoming friends with many of them.

As a recovering introvert, it definitely took me out of my comfort zone having to speak loudly and authoritatively while managing the concerns of 30-plus students at a time. It was new for me to be the one striking up conversations and encouraging others to also interact with people who they might not normally see as potential friends. I believe this was worth it as my efforts, along with those of my partner GBO leader, strongly promoted inclusivity, and the friendliness of our orientation group created a genuinely welcoming environment that has held many of these freshmen together as close friends throughout their first year. The entire GBO experience helped me grow both as a leader and as a person.

What is the Peer Advising Leaders (PAL) program and why did you want to become a PAL?

 Peer Advising Leaders are students who serve as a front line for the advising office. We answer students’ questions about classes, scheduling, majors, CNR organizations, research opportunities, career options, and many other areas. In general, we strive to help in any way we can. We also work with advisors to come up with fun programming and event ideas for CNR students.

I wanted to become a PAL for many reasons. I hoped to improve my communication skills by helping students navigate CNR’s resources and opportunities. I knew I would also benefit from working closely with advisors as well as gaining a deeper knowledge and understanding of CNR’s policies. Finally, I was excited to foster friendships with my fellow PALs.

CNR Pals Sabrina (far right) with her fellow CNR Peer Advising Leaders.

What's your favorite part of being a PAL?

For many CNR students, 260 Mulford Hall—the home of the advising office—is one of the most welcoming places on campus. The couches are perfect for napping without shame, and the “positivity wall” fills you with good vibes. Every time I look at the wall, I find a new interesting quote or phrase that gives me a chuckle and brightens my day. I feel very lucky that I spend so much time in 260 Mulford as a PAL.

My favorite part of being a PAL is becoming friends with the people who come up to the PAL desk while I’m working. One of my goals every semester is to make at least one friend in each lecture, discussion, and lab that I take, and I have been successful in that endeavor partially because of all the CNR students I interact with as a PAL.

Why does studying molecular environmental biology interest you?

With the molecular environmental biology major, I have the opportunity to explore diverse but connected areas of the natural world in an in-depth and thoughtful way. In genetics, it’s fascinating to learn that everything—even something as seemingly insignificant as the fruitfly Drosophila melanogaster—is composed of a complex and precise genetic structure and is valuable for understanding how it fits into our world and its ecosystem. Widening the scope to the environment and looking through many different lenses from ecological and policy perspectives has helped me become more conscious of the consequences of my actions and more appreciative of nature. Growing up, I spent a lot of time indoors studying. Taking classes at UC Berkeley has helped me realize the tiny joy that can be found in simply being outside, appreciating all the unique creations of life. Being able to identify plant species is so exciting to me!

 Sabrina on a hike to Mission Peak with two friends Sabrina (left) on a hike to Mission Peak with two friends.

As a PAL and GBO leader, what advice to you have for newly admitted CNR students?

My advice is to try new things, take risks, and embrace failure. When you think about the worst that could happen if you truly fail, you start to realize that it indeed might be not be so bad—you can usually pick yourself up and try again next time.

Studying at Cal is unbelievably challenging. It is impossible to avoid adversity on this campus, and it exists in different forms for each individual. However, it is important to remember we are all incredibly privileged to be here. Berkeley is the dream school for so many bright students worldwide, and we are the few lucky enough to attend.

On a large campus with so many talented individuals, it’s hard not to compare yourself to other students and think that they’re getting better grades, participating in more impressive activities, maintaining a more active social life, accomplishing bigger achievements—and more. But you are here to be you. You are here to strive to become the best version of yourself. So practice joy, peace, and love in all its forms, especially self-love.

You are about to become a Golden Bear. Gold can get dings and scratches, but it never loses its ability to shine. You will shine!

Image:  Sabrina Jones Date:  Wednesday, May 2, 2018 - 13:00 Legacy:  section header item:  Date:  Thursday, April 26, 2018 - 13:00 headline_position:  Top Left headline_color_style:  Normal headline_width:  Long caption_color_style:  Normal caption_position:  Bottom Left News/Story tag(s):  Student Spotlights

Dan and Isacoff Elected to the National Academy of Sciences

Department of Molecular and Cell Biology - Tue, 05/01/2018 - 13:09

HHMI Investigator and Professor of Neurobiology Yang Dan, and Director of the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute and Professor of Neurobiology Ehud Isacoff are two of five UC Berkeley faculty members elected to the National Academy of Sciences today. The academy is the most prestigious scientific society in the United States and provides science, engineering and health policy advice to the federal government and other organizations. 

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Holographic Projection: Activating Neurons, Encoding Perceptions

Department of Molecular and Cell Biology - Mon, 04/30/2018 - 13:18

Three MCB postdocs Alan Mardinly, Nicolas Pégard, and Ian Oldenburg are first authors of a paper published today in Nature Neuroscience along with Stephen Brohawn, Hillel Adesnik, Laura Waller and other researchers. They have devised a holographic brain modulator capable of stimulating single neurons and copying real patterns of brain activity to fool the brain into thinking it has felt, seen, or sensed something. They hope to develop a miniaturaized device that could be used as a neural prosthetic replacing lost sensations after degenerative disease or injury, allowing the blind to see, or the paralyzed to feel touch.

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What Happens When Geneticists Talk Sloppily About Race

Department of Bioengineering - Sat, 04/28/2018 - 12:08
Professor Ian Holmes writes about the importance of wording when talking about genetics and race, in the Atlantic, April 25.
Categories: Science News

Collins & Nogales determine structure of telomerase

Department of Molecular and Cell Biology - Fri, 04/27/2018 - 11:28

Image credit: Janet Iwasa MCB Professors Kathleen Collins and Eva Nogales have published a new paper in Nature describing the three-dimensional structure of telomerase, an enzyme that replaces depleted nucleotides back onto telomeres at the ends of chromosomes.

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BioE alumni talk on building a successful startup

Department of Bioengineering - Fri, 04/27/2018 - 10:31
Three bioengineering alumni took the stage with Y Combinator president Sam Altman on April 25 to discuss building a successful bio venture and the launch of YC Bio. Dr. Kelly Gardner, Co-Founder & CEO, Zephyrus Biosciences; Dr. Akwasi Apori, Co-Founder, Correlia Biosystems; and Alex Mok, Co-Founder & CEO, Mantra Bio spoke with Prof. Dave Schaffer, Co-Founder, 4D Molecular Therapeutics.
Categories: Science News

Patel Appointed Director of the Marine Biological Laboratory

Department of Molecular and Cell Biology - Tue, 04/24/2018 - 16:57

MCB Co-Chair, William D. Power Chair in Biology and Professor Nipam Patel has been named Director of the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) at Woods Hole, MA. Founded in 1888, and one of the world's premier research and educational institutes dedicated to scientific discovery, the MBL will provide an incredible opportunity for Nipam to continue to influence some of the things he is most passionate about including research, science education, and science outreach. He has taught an Embryology course, served on the education committee, and performed research at the MBL for almost 20 years.

While we will miss him as an outstanding colleague, teacher and mentor here at UC Berkeley, we wish him the very best in his new position. 

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Fletcher: Smartphone Medical Diagnostics

Department of Molecular and Cell Biology - Tue, 04/24/2018 - 00:38

Daniel Fletcher Photo: Mark Joseph Hanson The lab of MCB Associate Professor & Bioengineering Professor Daniel Fletcher has developed new smartphone microscopes that can be used for quick medical diagnostics. In the future, these user-friendly and easily accessible tools may be used for detecting retinal disease and other maladies.

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