Scientist Proposes New DNA-based Naming System for All Living Organisms

Posted February 21st, 2014 at 10:00 pm (UTC+0)
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DNA helix

DNA helix

All living organisms on Earth could soon have a new name if a Virginia Tech professor has his way.

Boris Vinatzer has developed a system that classifies and names organisms based on their genome sequence.

His study was published today in PLoS One.

Vinatzer says his new system would provide scientists and others with a much more precise and clear “universal language” that could make communicating about all life on Earth easier.

Adopting his system would provide each of Earth’s organisms, whether it’s a bacterium, plant, fungus or animal, with a heartier, more detailed and useful name, according to Vinatzer.

The naming system is based on the one devised in the 18th century by Carl Linnaeus (aka Carl von Linné), a Swedish botanist, physician, and zoologist, who is often referred to godfather of genus (taxonomic rank). The Linnaeus classification system has been used by scientists worldwide for more than 200 years.

Carl Linnaeus is a botanist who in the 18th century devised a system for classifying living things that is still used today. (Wikimedia Commons)

Carl Linnaeus is a botanist who in the 18th century devised a system for classifying living things that is still used today. (Wikimedia Commons)

Genome sequencing technology has progressed immensely in recent years and it now allows us to distinguish between any bacteria, plant, or animal at a very low cost,” said Vinatzer, who is with Virginia Tech’s Fralin Life Science Institute. “The limitation of the Linnaeus system is the absence of a method to name the sequenced organisms with precision.”

Rather than completely change the current naming convention of biological classification, Vinatzer sees his system more as a way to add more specific defining data to the classification of every organism within its already named species.

Since the naming system would depend on an organism’s specific genetic code, he says it would allow for a much quicker and more universal way of identifying new life forms.

The system begins with the sampling and sequencing of an organism’s DNA.

The sequenced DNA is then used to produce unique code that is specific to that individual organism, but is also based on its similarity to other like organisms that have already been sequenced.

Scientist Boris Vinatzer at work in his lab ( Virginia Tech)

Scientist Boris Vinatzer at work in his lab ( Virginia Tech)

Unlike the current method of biological classification where the names of organisms may change and vary over time, Vinatzer says the code system would make names  permanent and standardized.

He also says that naming life forms based on his proposed code system would be faster than today’s long and detailed process that requires analyzing one organism’s physical characteristics compared to another’s.

Back in 2009, Vinatzer and a colleague had success with using genome sequencing to trace a pathogen that was devastating kiwifruit crops around the world back to China.

Study Finds Genetically Altered Immune Cells Kill Cancer

Posted February 19th, 2014 at 7:01 pm (UTC+0)
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A microscopic view (purple)of precursor B-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia - B-ALL. (VashiDonsk/Wikimedia Commons)

A microscopic view (purple)of precursor B-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia – B-ALL. (VashiDonsk/Wikimedia Commons)

Researchers at New York’s Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center say they’ve been able to successfully train a patient’s own immune cells to find and destroy cancer.

In the largest-ever clinical study of patients with an advanced form of leukemia, the researchers found that 88 percent of the subjects treated with their own genetically modified immune cells were able to achieve complete remission from the disease.

“These extraordinary results demonstrate that cell therapy is a powerful treatment for patients who have exhausted all conventional therapies,” said one of the study’s senior authors, Michel Sadelain, director of the Center for Cell Engineering at Memorial Sloan Kettering. “Our initial findings have held up in a larger cohort of patients, and we are already looking at new clinical studies to advance this novel therapeutic approach in fighting cancer.”

The study findings were reported in Science Translational Medicine.

The patients in the study all suffered from a relapse of Adult B cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia (B-ALL). This form of blood cancer develops in a person’s B cells, a type of white blood cell.

Chemotherapy IV drip bottle (Linda Bartlett/Wikimedia Commons)

Chemotherapy IV drip bottle (Linda Bartlett/Wikimedia Commons)

B-ALL can be difficult to treat. Most patients tend to relapse after successful initial therapies and there are few treatment options for those who do relapse.

One of the few treatment options is an aggressive form of chemotherapy called salvage chemotherapy. But, of all the relapsed B-ALL patients who have this treatment, only about 30 percent respond positively.

Even if the salvage chemotherapy is successful, the patient would, at best, be in remission and not cured.

For any hope of long term survival, B-ALL sufferers need to undergo a successful bone marrow transplant.

For the study, the team gathered 16 people with relapsed B-ALL and infused the volunteer patients with dosages of their own genetically modified T-cells, another white blood cell that protects the body from infection.

So why can’t our T-cells naturally fight cancer as they do with viruses like the flu? It turns out that our immune system isn’t able to recognize cancer cells as foreign intruders as it would with other forms of infection. So, in their natural state, T-cells aren’t helpful in attacking  cancer cells.

Scanning electron micrograph of a human T lymphocyte (also called a T cell) from the immune system of a healthy donor. (NIAID via Wikimedia Commons)

Scanning electron micrograph of a human T lymphocyte (also called a T cell) from the immune system of a healthy donor. (NIAID via Wikimedia Commons)

Immune cells need to be specially trained to find and destroy  cancer cells. The researchers “taught” the T-cells through genetic modification to look for and kill cancer cells that contain a protein called CD19.

According to the study, the successful results achieved by this form of therapy far exceeded the positive response rate of patients who had salvage chemotherapy treatment alone.

There were side effects to the cell therapy, including flu-like fever, muscle pain, low blood pressure and difficulty breathing, something the doctors referred to as cytokine release syndrome. Cytokine is a form of protein.

The study’s investigators are continuing their research to see whether cell therapy could be as successful at treating other forms of cancer as has shown to be with relapsed B-ALL.

New Research Provides Insight into When a Volcano Will Erupt

Posted February 17th, 2014 at 5:36 pm (UTC+0)
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Mount Hood in Northern Oregon (Eric Klemetti, Denison University)

Mount Hood in Northern Oregon (Eric Klemetti, Denison University)

New research by scientists from at the University of California-Davis and Oregon State University may make it easier to predict when a volcano is ready to erupt.

A new study published recently in the journal Nature says that before an eruption, the volcanic magma – or the molten/semi molten rock under the volcano – must first be in a state where it is fluid enough to erupt.

“People think about there being this big reservoir of liquid magma under a volcano, but we don’t think it’s in that state all the time,” said Kari Cooper, lead author of the study and an associate professor at the University of California-Davis.

They’ve also found that the time it takes for magma to liquefy takes less time than previously thought, making a dormant volcano an active one in as little as a couple of months.

The researchers made their findings after studying Mount Hood, a dormant volcano near the Oregon/Washington border.

The magma that would supply an eruption of Mt. Hood lies between four to five kilometers beneath the volcano.

“The question is, ‘what percentage of time is the magma in an eruptible state?”’ Cooper asked.

The California/Oregon research team found that the magma tucked beneath Mt. Hood has been has been stored for at least 20,000 to 100,000 years. It has been in a cold or immobile state for between 88 percent and 99 percent of those years.

For the magma to liquefy to eruption levels, the researchers said that its temperature will need be more than 750 degrees centigrade.

Kari Cooper discusses research conducted with colleague Adam Kent at Mount Hood (UC Davis)

“If the temperature of the rock is too cold, the magma is like peanut butter in a refrigerator,” said the co-author of the study, Adam Kent, from Oregon State University. “It just isn’t very mobile. For Mount Hood, the threshold seems to be about 750 degrees centigrade. If it warms up just 50 to 75 degrees above that, it greatly increases the viscosity of the magma and makes it easier to mobilize.”

This boost in temperature is caused when hot magma located much deeper beneath the Earth’s crust pushes its way to the surface and mixes with the cooler more solid volcanic rock.

Kent said that the mixing of the hot and colder types of magma is what set off Mount Hood’s last two eruptions about 220- and 1,500-years-ago.

Fortunately, according to the researchers, when Mt. Hood did erupt, they weren’t very violent in nature.  The magma oozed out of the top of the volcano, instead of exploding like other volcanic eruptions.

“What happens when they mix is what happens when you squeeze a tube of toothpaste in the middle,” Kent said.  ”A big glob kind of plops out the top, but in the case of Mount Hood – it doesn’t blow the mountain to pieces.”

Kent and his colleague Alison Koleszar found in a previously conducted study, that mixing magma from two different sources, that may also have different compositions, not only could trigger an eruption, but also adds a “constraining factor” that determines just how violent the eruption could be.

Mount Saint Helens (a neighbor of Mount Hood) erupting on July 22, 1980 (USGS Cascades Volcano Observatory )

Mount Saint Helens (a neighbor of Mount Hood) erupting on July 22, 1980 (USGS Cascades Volcano Observatory )

The researchers said that crystals form within the magma as it cools.  The ability for the magma to be mobile depends on the amount of crystallization.  When the volcanic rock is more than 50 percent crystalline it’s pretty much immobile and not really in a state for eruption.

As the magma grows colder, the scientists added, the crystallization process itself also slows down.

Studying volcanic rock from previous Mount Hood eruptions the researchers were able to determine the age of the crystals by observing the rate of decay of naturally occurring radioactive elements.

According to the study, calculating a combination of the magma crystal’s age along with its rate of growth can provide scientists with a geologic fingerprint to help them determine just when the magma becomes heated enough to cause an eruption.

“What is encouraging from another standpoint is that modern technology should be able to detect when magma is beginning to liquefy, or mobilize,” Kent said, “and that may give us warning of a potential eruption. Monitoring gases, utilizing seismic waves and studying ground deformation through GPS are a few of the techniques that could tell us that things are warming.”

Survey Reveals American’s Attitudes About Science and Technology

Posted February 14th, 2014 at 9:27 pm (UTC+0)
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A scientist works in a laboratory at the International Livestock Research Institute in Nairobi, Kenya.  (Australia Dept of Foreign Affairs & Trade/Creative Commons)

A scientist works in a laboratory at the International Livestock Research Institute in Nairobi, Kenya. (Australia Dept of Foreign Affairs & Trade/Creative Commons)

Americans like scientists.  They’re really interested in learning all about the latest scientific breakthroughs too.  But, unfortunately, it appears that a number of them can also use some tutoring to learn and better understand science.

This bit of insight into the American public’s perception and understanding of science was determined by a survey of more than 2,200 people and is included in the latest biennial report from the National Science Board (NSB).

“It’s important for Americans to maintain a high regard for science and scientists,” said John Besley, from Michigan State University. “It can help ensure funding and help attract future scientists.”

Besley reviewed the survey data and was the lead author of the section of the NSB’s paper that examined the public perceptions of science and technology.

Every two years, the National Science Board, the governing body of the National Science Foundation, prepares and releases its report, “Science and Engineering Indicators,” which is also presented to the President and Congress.

The 2014 edition of the report finds that more than 90 percent of Americans think scientists are “helping to solve challenging problems” and are “dedicated people who work for the good of humanity.”

But when it comes to being able to answer some fundamental science questions, Americans apparently have a bit of difficulty.  Out of a total of nine questions about physical and biological sciences, they were able to correctly answer an average of 6.5 of them.

Scientists work on a project for NASA's Goddard Flight Center (NASA/Albert Shih)

Scientists work on a project for NASA’s Goddard Flight Center (NASA/Albert Shih)

About 74 percent of those surveyed, for example, knew that the Earth revolved around the sun (thank you Mr. Copernicus). And when it came to the theory of evolution, only 48 percent knew that human beings developed from earlier species of animals.

Other highlights in the NSB survey include:

  • More than 90 percent, representing a majority of Americans, said that they were “very interested” or “moderately interested” in learning about new medical discoveries.
  • About 60 percent of Americans said that they had visited a zoo, aquarium, natural history museum or a science and technology museum.
  • Just about 90 percent of those who were surveyed said that they think the benefits of science outweigh any potential dangers.
  • Close to 33 percent of those who responded to the survey said that they think science and technology should get more funding.

And so members of the scientific community, it appears that the American public in general, needs to brush up on science, is quite supportive of you and your work, but they’re perhaps a bit unsure of just how to pay for it.

Researchers Trace Face’s Evolutionary Transformation

Posted February 12th, 2014 at 6:40 pm (UTC+0)
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(National Cancer Institute)

(National Cancer Institute)

When you examine your face in the mirror, do you ever wonder how the most unique and identifying part of your body originated and developed?

Writing in a new study published in Nature, a team of French and Swedish researchers offers new fossil evidence that just might explain why we have protruding noses with two nostrils, rather than one big hole between our eyes.

Using special high-powered X-ray imaging equipment, researchers studied a series of fish fossils that ranged in age from ancient to a bit more recent. In the middle of that series of fossils was the skull of a 410-million-year-old, long-extinct species called Romundina a member of the Placoderm (armored fish) class of fish from the Devonian period – 419.2 to 358.9 million years ago.

Scientists know vertebrates evolved from jawless species into those with jaws. Researchers describe this structural transformation as dramatic, causing the face to effectively turn inside out.

Most of today’s vertebrates have jaws; the only species that don’t are lamprey (eels) and hagfishes.

By placing the Romundina in the middle of their fossil sequence, between more primitive and advanced species, researchers were able to map out the main steps of the transition between jawless and jawed vertebrates.

They noted that as the embryos of jawless vertebrates developed, blocks of tissue grew forward on each side of the brain, where they met in the mid-front of the face and formed a big upper lip that surrounded one centrally located nostril just in front of the eyes.

3D reconstruction of the skull the fish Romundina showing a mixture of facial structures found in both jawless and jawed vertebrates. (Vincent Dupret, Uppsala University/Nature)

3D reconstruction of the skull the fish Romundina showing a mixture of facial structures found in both jawless and jawed vertebrates. (Vincent Dupret, Uppsala University/Nature)

For jawed vertebrates, they found that this same tissue grew forward just under the brain but then pushed its way between the fish’s left and right nasal sacs, which opened to the outside independently of each other.

The researchers say that this particular evolutionary change is why our faces have two nostrils instead of one big hole in the middle like the jawless vertebrates. And, the reason why our nose is located at the front of our face is because the brain of jawed vertebrates also happens to be much longer than the jawless; otherwise our nose would be positioned much further back between our eyes.

Up until they released their findings, the French and Swedish research team said that very little was known about the intermediate steps of the transformation between jawless and jawed vertebrates.

Planetary Scientists Get Into Balloon Game

Posted February 10th, 2014 at 7:45 pm (UTC+0)
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The high-altitude balloon that carried the HySICS instruments with WASP is inflated with helium at sunrise on the morning of Sept. 29, 2013. (HySICS Team/LASP)

The high-altitude balloon that carried the HySICS instruments with WASP is inflated with helium at sunrise on Sept. 29, 2013. (HySICS Team/LASP)

A new device developed by NASA will help planetary scientists take advantage of high altitude research balloons, a relatively inexpensive observational platform that has long been used by other scientists.

The balloons, which can climb to the edge of space, have been utilized by researchers  across multiple scientific disciplines, helping them to make groundbreaking findings.

However, until now, there hasn’t been anything that provides scientists who study planets, moons and other planetary systems, the precision they need to utilize high altitude balloons.

“Planetary scientists really haven’t been involved in balloon payloads,” said NASA’s Terry Hurford. “Planetary targets move with respect to the stars in the background. And because you need to track them to gather measurements, you need a system that can accurately point and then follow a target. These challenges are why planetary scientists haven’t gotten into the balloon game.”

Wallops Arc Second Pointer and the HyperSpectral Imager for Climate Science after a high altitude balloon mission in September. (NASA)

Wallops Arc Second Pointer and the HyperSpectral Imager for Climate Science after a high altitude balloon mission in September. (NASA)

The new device that will change that is called the Wallops Arc Second Pointer (WASP).  When hoisted aloft by a balloon, WASP can aim astronomical instruments at their planetary objectives with sub arc-second accuracy and stability.

“Arc-second pointing is unbelievably precise,” said David Stuchlik,  WASP project manager. “Some compare it to the ability to find and track an object that is the diameter of a dime from two miles away.”

With their observational tools lifted up high above 95 percent of atmosphere, planetary scientists can do their work free from many of the problems that come with using traditional ground-based observatories, such as atmospheric distortion, which makes stars look like they’re twinkling.

With the help of WASP, planetary scientists will also be able to make their observations in the ultraviolet- and infrared-wavelength bands, something they really can’t do from the surface of the Earth. The WASP has been designed to be quite flexible so that it can be used to help carry out a variety of diverse scientific research projects.

Wallops Arc Second Pointer payload prepared to launch on-board a scientific balloon. (NASA)

Wallops Arc Second Pointer payload prepared to launch on-board a scientific balloon. (NASA)

The WASP has been successfully tested three times, most recently in September 2013, when a 30-story balloon lifted it to an altitude of nearly 37,186 meters above Fort Sumner, New Mexico, with an engineering test unit of the HyperSpectral Imager for Climate Science (HySICS). From atop most of the Earth’s atmosphere, the WASP was able to precisely point the HySICS unit so that it could measure the Earth, sun and moon.

WASP will get two workouts this coming September. HySICS researchers will conduct another balloon test flight and then WASP will get the chance to show how it performs for a planetary observational experiment, known as the Observatory for Planetary Investigations from the Stratosphere (OPIS), that will study Jupiter and planets beyond the solar system.

Earth’s Magnetic Fields Guide Salmon Home to Spawn

Posted February 7th, 2014 at 8:03 pm (UTC+0)
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Oncorhynchus nerka otherwise known as the sockeye salmon (Current Biology, Putman et al.)

Oncorhynchus nerka otherwise known as the sockeye salmon (Current Biology, Putman et al.)

Earth’s magnetic fields play a significant role in helping salmon find their way home to spawn, according to two new studies from  Oregon State University.

After poring over 56 years of data, the researchers found that a magnetic map is responsible for providing sockeye salmon with their keen sense of direction which guides them home, even when they’ve been away at sea for years.

“To find their way back home across thousands of kilometers of ocean, salmon imprint on the magnetic field that exists where they first enter the sea as juveniles,” said Nathan Putman of Oregon State University who headed both studies, which were published in Current Biology. “Upon reaching maturity, they seek the coastal location with the same magnetic field.”

Imprinting is an animal’s special form of learning. While specific definitions of imprinting differ, in general this kind of learning takes place during a specific and critical period of the animal’s life, usually early in life. The effects of this learning process are long-lasting and cannot be easily altered.

A second study by the Oregon researchers found that even young chinook salmon produced at a hatchery can zero in on the direction of their ancestors’ feeding grounds with the help of Earth’s magnetic field. The researchers think salmon pass along—from generation to generation—some kind of built-in GPS system programmed to always send them home.

Chinook salmon at the Oregon Hatchery Research Center. (Emily M. Putman)

Chinook salmon at the Oregon Hatchery Research Center (Emily M. Putman)

“In essence, the fish act as though they have a map based on the magnetic field,” said Putnam. “When the fish experience a magnetic field that is north or south of their typical ocean range, they change their swimming direction to go back.”

In previous research projects, Putman and his colleagues showed that migrating sea turtles depend on the magnetic fields to sense both their north-south and east-west positions. Up until those findings were made, scientists had doubted magnetic fields could explain how migratory animals guide themselves in the east-west direction.

For the research behind the sockeye salmon study, the Oregon group focused on the salmon that were from the Fraser River in British Columbia, Canada. Like other species of Pacific Salmon, the sockeyes leave the river and head out to the sea, but in this case there’s a bit of a glitch.

“When they attempt to return, they are confronted with a giant obstacle: Vancouver Island is blocking direct access to their river,” said Putnam. “So the fish must make a choice: do they use the northern inlet or the southern inlet in their detour?”

The Earth’s magnetic field doesn’t remain constant because something known as geomagnetic field drift causes the fields to slowly move about. Scientists say this happens due to the movement of our planet’s liquid outer core.

So with geomagnetic field drift in mind, the researchers reasoned that if the sockeyes really do follow the magnetic fields, their choice between traveling through the northern or southern inlet should gradually change back and forth over the years as the fields shifted.

Sockeye salmon return to home waters to spawn after years at sea (Current Biology, Putman et al.)

Sockeye salmon return to home waters to spawn after years at sea. (Current Biology, Putman et al.)

Their choice in what direction to take would be due to whichever inlet provides the best match of the magnetic value of the Fraser River when they left years earlier.  A comparison of records kept by fisheries since the 1950s, with the researcher’s model that predicted the shifting magnetic fields, showed the fish traveled in the expected direction.

The research behind the second, or Chinook salmon, study also revealed that the fish don’t rely on just one aspect of the magnetic field, but on a combination of two— magnetic intensity and its inclination angle.

The salmon are able to determine their position, and can be guided to their destinations, by simply picking up on the subtle differences in both the intensity and inclination characteristics. The researchers found the fish didn’t need any prior experience to gain those unique navigational skills.

Can Power of the Mind Control Chronic Pain?

Posted February 5th, 2014 at 7:27 pm (UTC+0)
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Millions of people around the world live each day in pain (Shanghai killer whale via Wikimedia Commons)

Millions around the world live with pain every day. (Shanghai killer whale via Wikimedia Commons)

Utah researchers say they’ve developed a technique that allows patients to use the power of their minds to help treat chronic pain.

One in five people worldwide suffers from daily chronic pain, according to a 2004 report. A 2011 paper from the Institute of Medicine (IOM) showed that one in three U.S. adults is affected by this condition.

The University of Utah’s Eric Garland said his team’s technique not only helps relieve pain, but can also decrease prescription opioid misuse among chronic pain patients.

A variety of therapies are used to treat chronic pain including over-the-counter pain relievers,   exercise and diet, alternative medical therapies such as acupuncture, and prescription opiate-based pain medications, which can have serious side effects and lead to dependency.

Garland calls his new intervention technique Mindfulness-Oriented Recovery Enhancement (MORE) and said it is designed to train people to react differently to pain, stress and opioid-related cues.

“Mental interventions can address physical problems, like pain, on both psychological and biological levels because the mind and body are interconnected,” Garland said. “Anything that happens in the brain happens in the body—so by changing brain functioning, you alter the functioning of the body.”

Eric Garland, from the University of Utah, developed a new mindfulness-focused treatment for people with chronic pain (Nick Steffens)

Eric Garland, from the University of Utah, developed a new mindfulness-focused treatment for people with chronic pain (Nick Steffens)

In a study published online in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, Garland said the new treatment method led to a 63- percent reduction in the misuse of opioids, as compared to a 32-percent decrease among those who took part in a conventional support group.

Patients who were a part of the new treatment group also reported a 22 percent drop in pain-related impairment, something that the researchers said continued for three months after the end of their treatment period.

According to Garland, the MORE technique zeroes in on the basic processes involved in both chronic pain and the abuse of opioids, by combining three therapeutic components; mindfulness training, reappraisal and savoring.

The mindfulness training component consists of training the patient’s mind to increase its awareness, gain control over their attention, and learn to control automatic habits.

The reappraisal module is the process of taking the meaning of a stressful or negative experience and turning it around in such a way that it is seen as something positive and promotes growth.

Savoring is a method of learning that teaches patients to center their attention on positive events in their lives, heightening their sensitivity to naturally occurring positive experiences, such as enjoying a beautiful sunset or the special feeling of closeness with a loved one.

Painkillers containing opioids are sometimes prescribed by medical professionals for chronic pain, but they can have serious side effects and could promote dependency (e-Magine Art.com  via Flickr/Creative Commons)

Painkillers containing opioids are sometimes prescribed for chronic pain, but can have serious side effects and could promote dependency. (e-Magine Art.com via Flickr/Creative Commons)

Right now, Garland’s MORE technique is being tested in a preliminary brain imaging trial as a way to help smokers quit the habit.

Plans for further testing include working with those who have mental health problems or are addicted to alcohol. If these trials are successful, the research team plans to work with active-duty soldiers suffering with chronic pain while also conducting a larger trial among the general population.

Garland and his team envision the MORE technique as something that could be prescribed by doctors as an addition to traditional pain management methods.

Monarch Butterfly Mexico Migration Hits All-time Low

Posted February 3rd, 2014 at 7:54 pm (UTC+0)
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One of nature’s most beautiful sights is when a monarch butterfly comes fluttering into view.

Monarchs are the only known North American butterfly to migrate south for the winter, hibernating and returning in the spring as birds do. However, a new report finds the number of these butterflies hibernating in Mexico reached an all-time low in 2013, possibly due to loss of habitat, climate change and the use of insecticides.

“The combination of these threats has led to a dramatic decline in the number of monarch butterflies arriving to Mexico to hibernate over the past decade,” said Omar Vidal, World Wildlife Fund-Mexico director general. “Twenty years after the signing of NAFTA, the monarch butterfly migration – a symbol of cooperation between our three countries – is in grave danger.”

Depending on just how far north they make their summer homes, the butterflies’ journey south can be a long as nearly 5,000 kilometers.

Monarch butterflies that summer in eastern North America spend the winter in Mexico, while those living in the west winter in California.

The report, released last week by the World Wildlife Fund, Telcel Alliance and Mexico’s National Commission for Protected Areas (CONANP), surveyed Mexican forest areas known to be used by hibernating monarchs. Researchers found that only 6,677 square meters of forest area were populated by monarchs during December 2013. This finding shows a 44-percent drop from the same time in 2012, and represents the smallest area occupied by the monarchs since 1993, when these annual surveys began.

(c) WWF

(c) WWF

The annual survey is used by researchers as a way to indirectly tally the number of butterflies that make the trip from the United States and Canada during the yearly migration.

Using spatial analysis software, researchers toured 11 butterfly sanctuaries, that have historically been known to have a presence of monarch colonies, once every other week in order to determine the specific location of the butterflies and how much of the forest land they inhabited during their winter hiatus.

Scientists have cited numerous factors that may have caused the dramatic drop in the number of monarchs in recent years.

According to the report, some of the reasons for the population drop include:

•  A loss of the monarch’s reproductive habitat, which may have been caused by changes in land use

•  A decrease in the monarch larvae’s primary food source – milkweed – due to the use of herbicide

•  Extreme climate conditions in Canada, the United States and Mexico

•  A loss of forest area (deforestation) as well as and forest degradation throughout the areas of Mexico known for hosting monarchs in the winter

Monarch butterflies, gather in forrested areas of Mexico each winter (Raina Kumra via Flickr/Creative Commons)

Monarch butterflies gather in forested areas of Mexico each winter. (Raina Kumra via Flickr/Creative Commons)

Officials from Canada, Mexico and the United States will meet Feb. 19 in Toluca, Mexico, for the North American Leaders’ Summit.  The WWF is calling on participants to agree on a plan that calls for immediate action to conserve the monarch migration.

“Considering the challenges faced by the monarch butterfly and the clear evidence that their populations are declining, it is vital to mobilize as many people as possible, and that our efforts are carefully planned to help this butterfly recover, so their wonderful migration can be appreciated for many more generations”, said Karen Oberhauser a professor at the University of Minnesota who has been studying Monarchs since 1984.

New Canadian Study Analyzes Nightmares and Bad Dreams

Posted January 31st, 2014 at 8:43 pm (UTC+0)
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Nightmares are disturbing dreams that actually wake you up and the awakening is directly tied into what was going on in the nightmare. (Alysa L. Miller via Flickr/Creative Commons)

Nightmares are disturbing dreams that actually wake you up and the awakening is directly tied into what was going on in the nightmare. (Alysa L. Miller via Flickr/Creative Commons)

Waking up in the morning after having a bad dream at night might not be the best way to start the day, but, a terrifying nightmare can rock you awake from a sound sleep, leaving you scared and confused.

A new study released by psychology researchers Geneviève Robert and Antonio Zadra at the University of Montreal has revealed that nightmares indeed pack a much bigger emotional punch than simply having a bad dream.

Yes there is a difference between nightmares and bad dreams.  Zadra sums up the difference between the two in terms of intensity.

Nightmares, according to Zadra are disturbing dreams that actually wake you up and the awakening is directly tied into what was going on in the nightmare.  Having a bad dream can also be disturbing, but you continue to sleep and wake up as you normally would.  You may also remember the content of the bad dream as soon as you wake up or perhaps later in the day but, “there’s no temporal relationship between the content of the (bad) dream and us waking up from it,” said Zadra.

Zadra adds that nightmares end up giving rise to much more emotional distress than bad dreams do.  The researchers asked their volunteer test subjects to rate the intensity of the emotions they experience within their dreams.  After analyzing what the volunteers had written the researchers found that nightmares came out to be much more emotionally intense than bad dreams overall.

Fear is a common emotion expressed in a nightmare or bad dream (Kris Krug via Flickr/Creative Commons)

Fear is a common emotion that drives a nightmare or bad dream (Kris Krug via Flickr/Creative Commons)

And, while most people tend to link fear to nightmares and bad dreams, believe it or not it isn’t always the driving factor.  While fear does drive a majority of nightmares and bad dreams, Zadra says that about 35% of the nightmares and 50% of the bad dreams of the 10,000 they studied contained other primary emotions such as sadness, confusion, guilt, anger, disgust, and others.  As a result, nightmares can intensify a wide range of negative emotions.

So did the researchers find a common theme with nightmares and bad dreams?  Zadra said that the most frequently reported themes involved physical aggression or interpersonal conflicts, such as one where the dreamer is having an intense argument or is being humiliated by either a co-worker or family member.  Other themes related to helplessness, failure or health related concerns such as being told that you’re about to die since you have cancer or learning of someone else’s death.

Zadra said that being chased, the theme commonly used for nightmares in a number of books and movies, is actually quite rare, occurring in only about 10% of the nightmares and 5% of the bad dreams that were studied.

There are theme differences in the nightmares of men and of women.  Robert and Zadra report that nightmares in men were more likely to contain themes of disasters and calamities such as floods, earthquakes, wars and the end of the world, while women were twice more likely than men to have nightmares that contained themes involving interpersonal conflicts with a spouse, co-workers or family member.

Women tend to have nightmares that contain themes involving interpersonal conflicts such as an arguement with a loved one (Stuart Anthony via Flickr/Creative Commons)

Women tend to have nightmares that contain themes involving interpersonal conflicts such as having an arguement with a loved one (Stuart Anthony via Flickr/Creative Commons)

While most dreams are visual or a kind of a “cinema of the mind” Zadra says other senses can manifest themselves in nightmares and bad dreams.  Dreams can be auditory in nature, Zadra said that for example we can hear people scream or talk to us, hear sirens wailing or a dog barking. On rare occasions Zadra said that we can also feel pain, feel the cold or warmth around us, and sometimes we can also taste or smell things in our dreams.

While an old saying says that eating a heavy meal before bedtime will bring on a bad dream or nightmare, “I think we can probably put to rest the idea that having the pepperoni pizza before going to bed induces nightmares,” said Zadra.  While eating a heavy meal at before bedtime can give us indigestion or wake us up during the night, by and large nightmares tend to occur in periods when people are under stress or self-doubt.

Having recurring nightmares may also be linked to a traumatic event. Soldiers returning from war sometimes, dream of the traumatizing events that occurred to them. The researchers also pointed out that the consumption or withdrawal of alcohol or psychotropic drugs could also explain the frequency or intensity of nightmares.

Men are more likely to have nightmares about disasters and calamities such as floods, earthquakes, wars and the end of the world (Frankincensebarbados Plasticfoods via Flicker/Creative Commons)

Men are more likely to have nightmares about disasters and calamities such as floods, earthquakes, wars and the end of the world (Frankincensebarbados Plasticfoods via Flicker/Creative Commons)

“Nightmares are not a disease in themselves but can be a problem for the individual who anticipates them or who is greatly distressed by their nightmares. People who have frequent nightmares may fear falling asleep – and being plunged into their worst dreams. Some nightmares are repeated every night. People who are awakened by their nightmares cannot get back to sleep, which creates artificial insomnia,” said Zadra.

While they are incredibly disturbing, having frequent nightmares can be treated, according to the researchers.  Zadra said that one way to treat recurring nightmares is by using visualization techniques, such when the dreamer learns to change the scenario of his dream and visualize it in his mind by using a mental imagery technique.

A study based on the research conducted by Robert and Zadra was recently published in the journal “Sleep”.

Dr. Zadra joins us on this week’s radio edition of “Science World” to talk about the research he and his colleague Geneviève Robert conducted on bad dreams and nightmares. Tune in (see right column for scheduled times) or check out the interview in the player below.

 

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