Category Archives: University of Oregon

Gratitude journals may change our brains

In a new study, researchers found a notable change in the brains of 16 women who wrote daily about gratitude in an online journal.

Compared to 17 other women who wrote about neutral topics, the gratitude group was more likely to take pleasure watching a donation going to Food for Lane County rather than receiving the money themselves.

“When we are counting our blessings, this part of the brain is giving us this neural currency that makes us literally richer…”

Researchers captured the evidence with MRI scans of the women’s brains as they viewed such giving at the beginning of the study and again after three weeks of journaling. The scans detected changes in oxygen metabolism in cells in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, an area deep in the brain.

The same region has been associated with altruistic traits in previous studies, including one last year by study coauthor Ulrich Mayr that found increases in pure altruism as people grow older.

Research leader Christina Karns, a research associate in the psychology department at the University of Oregon, says that the journaling recalibrated the neural value of altruism, something that could be seen as handy during the holiday season.

“When we are counting our blessings, this part of the brain is giving us this neural currency that makes us literally richer,” says Karns, director of her department’s Emotions and Neuroplasticity Project.

“Making use of this neural currency, giving is something that is done with a grateful heart, with a feeling of your own abundance for what others have done for you,” Karns says.

Whether this writing-about-gratitude approach, which the researchers detail in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, leads to long-lasting changes in a person’s mental value toward charity is unknown but worthy of more research, she says.

In this first short-term study, she says, only women ages 18–27 were recruited, to reduce variability in the project. Initially, researchers assessed the women through brain scans and questionnaires designed to discreetly identify altruistic traits, during which they viewed transactions of a sum of money going to the food bank or routed to themselves.

The participants whose answers to the questionnaire showed more altruistic and grateful traits had a larger reward-related brain response when the charity received money than when they received the money themselves. That raised the question: can practicing gratitude change this response?

This writing task makes anxious brains more efficient

Next, to test the journaling intervention, researchers assigned the women randomly to one of two groups. One group made daily journal entries in response to prompts focused on gratitude; the other group wrote after getting neutral, non-gratitude prompts.

Three weeks later, the participants returned to the Lewis Center for Neuroimaging to repeat the questionnaires and, while researchers scanned them again, they viewed transactions of money going to the food bank or themselves. MRI captured notable shifts in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex.

“The gratitude-journal group, as a whole, whether or not they started high in altruism, increased that value signal toward the charity getting the money over watching themselves get the money,” Karns says. “It’s as if they became generous toward others than themselves.”

The study shows that the part of the brain that supports feelings of reward is flexible, allowing for changes in values linked to feelings of altruism.

“Our findings suggest that there’s more good out there when there is gratitude,” says Karns.

Former University of Oregon doctoral student William E. Moore III, now a postdoctoral researcher at Harvard University, was a coauthor on the study with Karns and Mayr.

Writing your divorce story can be good for your heart

The funding for the research came from the Expanding the Science and Practice of Gratitude Project through the Greater Good Science Center, in partnership with the University of California and the Templeton Religious Trust via the Institute for the Study of Human Flourishing at the University of Oklahoma.

Source: University of Oregon

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Scientists aim to turn off mosquito genes for biting

Focusing on Wyeomyia smithii, also known as pitcher plant mosquitoes, researchers have pinpointed and sorted out 902 genes related to blood feeding and 478 genes linked to non-blood feeding among female mosquitoes.

The researchers hope to use this genetic information to stop mosquitoes from feeding on blood, which would, in turn, stop the spread of many serious diseases.

“…if we can figure out how to incapacitate biting genes, that would mitigate vector-borne disease worldwide…”

Pitcher plant mosquitoes, which biologists William Bradshaw and Christina Holzapfel have studied for decades, grow in swamps and bogs along the east coast of North America from north Florida into Canada. The species completes its pre-adult life cycle in the water of pitcher plants.

The approach used in isolating the genes will be pursued in other species to identify which ones are universal, says Bradshaw and Holzapfel, who are members of the University of Oregon’s Institute of Ecology and Evolution.

Next, the researchers hope to target common house mosquitoes (Culex pipiens), which spread many encephalitis diseases, West Nile virus, and heartworm; Asian tiger mosquitoes (Aedes albopictus), spreading rapidly in the United States and carriers of, among other viruses, dengue, Zika, and yellow fever; and the African malaria mosquito Anopheles gambiae.

“We are seeking the genes that are in the transition between biting and non-biting,” Holzapfel says. “The reason we are seeking those genes is because if we can figure out how to incapacitate biting genes, that would mitigate vector-borne disease worldwide. If there is no bite, there is no disease transmission, period.”

The research initially targeted the pitcher plant mosquito because it is the only known species to have females that either bite to obtain blood or are obligate non-biters—those that don’t seek blood.

Females are the blood-feeding mosquitos, making them the vectors of diseases; males feed on nectar, as do female non-biting pitcher plant mosquitoes.

Bradshaw and Holzapfel say that they had realized the possibility 20 years ago that genes guiding these lifestyle differences existed and had evolved in nature, but the technology was not yet developed to isolate these genes.

In the project, the researchers examined 21,618 potential genes in the pitcher plant mosquito. Over seven generations, they identified and extracted 1,380 genes determined to have direct effects on differentiating the biting and non-biting lifestyles.

Scientists need help: Capture mosquito buzz on your phone

The step-by-step method involved strong, directional gene selection on a low-biting Florida population. By saving and mating only females about to blood-feed, researchers created an avid, voracious biting line. They also developed a group of disinterested non-biters from the same population by eliminating all females that bit or attempted to bite.

The researchers also examined known metabolic pathways of the isolated genes. Key proteins, like fatty acid synthesis and energy production, are being produced in both biters and non-biters, but the linking enzymes that determine which metabolic pathways are turned on are missing in the non-biters.

“The car is gassed up and running at the intersection but the light is red,” says coauthor Michael E. Pfrender, director of the Genomics & Bioinformatics Core Facility at the University of Notre Dame.

How mosquitoes get away before you can slap them

Understanding specific genes and metabolic pathways are tied to blood-feeding behavior, Holzapfel says, will be helpful for future efforts by pharmaceutical companies to harness a control approach that nature already has established. Such an approach, she adds, would allow mosquito populations to thrive and keep their place in the food chain.

The researchers report their findings in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Funding for the research came from the National Science Foundation.

Source: University of Oregon

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Medical stats have excluded the ‘invisible infertile’

The historical omission of certain groups from medical statistics casts doubt on the quality and accuracy of infertility research.

Men, women of color, single and divorced women, and those who self-identify as LGBTQ are among the “invisible infertile,” say coauthors Liberty Barnes, postdoctoral researcher at the University of Oregon, and Jasmine Fledderjohann of Lancaster University in the United Kingdom.

In a paper published in the journal Health Policy and Planning, they point out that the incidence of infertility among people living in high fertility areas, such as sub-Saharan Africa, is poorly assessed and often ignored. Around the world, the invisible infertile also includes racial and ethnic minorities, those with limited economic resources, those who do not have access to affordable healthcare, and persons with disabilities.

“I emailed the CDC with questions about male reproduction, and they said they couldn’t offer me any more information.”

An estimated 15 percent of couples worldwide are infertile, but that number hinges critically on the quality, inclusiveness, and availability of data sources used to track infertility, the two researchers say.

“Because these data and statistics are used for policymaking and decisions about reproductive health services, omission of these groups contributes to uneven access to state resources and health services,” the two sociologists write in the paper.

The research took root in 2004 when Barnes began studying the experiences of infertile men and sought data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

“I found lots of data on the CDC website about female reproduction but virtually nothing about men,” Barnes says. “I emailed the CDC with questions about male reproduction, and they said they couldn’t offer me any more information.”

By 2008, statistics about men dealing with infertility and using infertility services began appearing on the CDC website. Those data, Barnes discovered, were coming from the Integrated Fertility Survey Series, which began in 1955 but did not begin capturing information about men until 2002.

The first wave of the survey series excluded women of color and single and divorced women. Single childless women were excluded until 1982. Participants were presumed to be heterosexual until questions were added in the last decade to allow respondents to self-identify as LGBTQ.

“The researchers who started the series were truly pioneers in their field and the datasets are fantastic,” Barnes says. “As I looked through the sampling, I discovered that the surveys historically focused on white married women. This isn’t news to anyone who works with these datasets directly, but many demographers and social scientists who rely on statistics generated by these data do not know this.”

Researchers can’t just screen drugs for male bodies

To further explore the issue, Barnes teamed with Fledderjohann, who had similarly identified invisibility of African women’s infertility while collecting data on infertility in Ghana. Together, they wanted to show that cultural beliefs shape the design of surveys and who gets included.

In Ghana and other low and middle-income countries, surveys had been designed amid concerns of overpopulation; the surveys did not assess whether respondents had experienced infertility.

“Demographers have to work the data in creative ways to produce infertility statistics,” Barnes says.

What pigeons show us about sex bias in science

In their paper, Fledderjohann and Barnes call for a broader examination of existing data to consider who is missing and the potential implications, revising the wording and design in surveys to reduce bias, and engaging policymakers, medical professionals, and researchers in an open dialogue about the invisible infertile.

Source: University of Oregon

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Faces on product labels appeal to lonely people

People who are lonely are more likely to buy products that have faces on the label, a new study suggests.

“Visuals can fill a void for consumers experiencing a lack of social connection,” says Bettina Cornwell, professor of marketing at the University of Oregon. “When people see faces in branding materials, their likability for that brand goes up.”

The findings, which appear in the European Journal of Social Psychology, are rooted in our fundamental need to belong and our desire to form and sustain relationships. When people lack these social connections, they often attempt to fill the void in other ways, including through what they buy.

“Seeing a face in a brand visual increases a consumer’s liking of the brand, especially if they feel lonely.”

“Previous research linked our need for social connection with consumer behavior and judgment, but very little was understood about the role that visuals play in social connection and brand likability,” says lead author Ulrich R. Orth of Christian-Albrechts-University Kiel in Germany.

“Our study builds on prior research by demonstrating that seeing a face in a brand visual increases a consumer’s liking of the brand, especially if they feel lonely.”

The face on the label doesn’t even need to be smiling, researchers say. Consumers imagine humanlike characteristics in nonhuman visuals, a process also known as anthropomorphism.

Loneliness can enhance people’s tendency to exhibit “wishful seeing” and is most apparent in the case of faces.

“A lack of interpersonal relationships motivates people to actively search for sources of connection,” Cornwell says. “Individuals who are lonely are more likely to find faces in visuals because they so greatly desire this social connection.”

faces on wine bottle labels
(Credit: T. Bettina Cornwell)

For one of the studies, researchers created a set of 18 drawings that included both non-face images and ones that clearly depicted human faces. They also developed fictitious brand names and slogans to accompany the mock advertisements. Participants were then asked to answer questions about the brand, the images, and themselves.

How loneliness makes us sick

The findings showed a significant effect on brand likability when respondents saw a face on the label. There was also a clear link between high rates of loneliness, the tendency to imagine a face in a non-face drawing, and likability of the brand.

The researchers then turned to wine bottles to dive deeper into the findings. Forty-five different labels were ranked on a scale of 1 to 7 based on how clearly a face could be detected in the brand’s imagery.

They also controlled for measures like familiarity and personal wine preference. The results mirrored those of their first study: Consumers were more likely to favor brands that used faces on their labels.

The findings could be put to good use and not just leveraged to sell products to lonely consumers. There are important public policy implications about consumer vulnerability and valuable lessons for organizations that are helping people, communities, and society, Cornwell says.

Some ads make us think products ‘sound big’

“Charities and nonprofits can extract important information from these findings that will help them serve their communities. If they choose to use a face over another image, they will be more likely to connect with individuals and share their mission with others.”

Source: University of Oregon

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Team identifies genes that let pipefish dads get pregnant

A detailed genome of the snakelike gulf pipefish offers a new way to explore an ancient fish family that includes seahorses and sea dragons.

Genetic changes in this group have generated bodies with vastly different features. Comparing the genome with other vertebrate organisms may help scientists learn about basic aspects of human biology, such as how skulls develop and change shape and how the genome that people mostly share with other vertebrates can be tweaked to create new structures, says Susan Bassham, a senior research associate in the lab of University of Oregon biologist Bill Cresko where the research was done.

Seahorse heads are perfectly shaped to kill

A paper detailing the genome appears in the journal Genome Biology. The gulf pipefish—abundant in seagrass beds of the Gulf of Mexico—has the species name of Syngnathus scovelli. It belongs to the family known as Syngnathidae, which dates back at least 50 million years.

“…they are so weird looking in terms of their unique body plans.”

“This group of species has novelties that are not well understood from an evolutionary genetic standpoint,” says Clay Small, one of the paper’s lead authors and a postdoctoral fellow in Cresko’s lab in the Institute of Ecology and Evolution.

“The family Syngnathidae is a very good model for studying these derived structural features because they are so weird looking in terms of their unique body plans. Ultimately, we are interested in identifying genetic changes that are related to the evolution of these novel features in this whole family.”

Species in the Syngnathid family have long snouts, which help their suction-like feeding behavior. They have bony body armor. They lack pelvic fins, ribs, and teeth and have evolved unique placenta-like structures in males for the brooding of developing offspring.

Tiger tail seahorses, too

The publication of the gulf pipefish genome comes less than a week after the genome of another family member, the tiger tail seahorse, appeared in the journal Nature.

“Having this pair of papers published almost simultaneously moved genomic analyses of this remarkable group of fish ahead tremendously,” says Cresko, a professor of biology.

Why sequence this fly’s genes? Because it’s not special

The two genomes show that losses and changes in specific genes or gene functions may be responsible for evolutionary innovations, Small says. Through evolution, the pipefish and seahorse genomes have lost genetic elements compared to distant fish ancestors. These likely explain some changes in body alignment and the loss of pelvic fins, which correspond to legs in the human vertebrate lineage, he says.

Pregnant males

A big part of Small’s efforts focused on the ability of male pipefish to gestate embryos in their brood pouch. The gulf pipefish, Bassham says, provides an example of one of the most elaborated placental structures found in the males of various pipefish species.

Some 1,000 genes are expressed differently in the pouch during a male’s pregnancy to control developmental processes, nutrient exchange, stability, and immunity, the researchers report.

In a comparative analysis between pregnant and nonpregnant male pipefish, Small found a family of genes that behaved unusually. This gene family, patristacins, contains some members that turn on during pregnancy and others that are suppressed during pregnancy. The group of genes is likely unique to Syngnathid fishes, and they behave similarly in seahorses.

The team also found that gulf pipefish have two chromosomes fewer than most ray-finned fish. “By looking at the patterns of where genes lie in the genome, it’s very likely this difference resulted simply from the fusion of four of the ancestral chromosomes into two,” Bassham says. “Most fish have 24 chromosomes, but the gulf pipefish has 22.”

How do we get these ‘novelties’?

“Fish are vertebrates. We are vertebrates,” she says. “We share large swaths of our biology with these fish. We’d like to understand how evolution occurs, and some of the most exciting aspects of evolution happen when novel features appear in an evolutionary lineage.

Comb jellies have evolved totally different brains

“Novelties can happen multiple ways,” Bassham says. “Sometimes it involves a loss of a structure that creates a new way of life. In other cases, it might be an evolution of a new body part that wasn’t there before. Where did that tissue come from? How did it come into being? What was modified to make it? Or what developmental gene pathways were changed to allow for it?”

Other coauthors are from University of Oregon, Oregon Health & Science University, and Texas A&M University. The National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation supported the research.

Source: University of Oregon

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Metafluid experiment gives water new consistency

Watching a pan of water as it is agitated up and down brings to mind ripples of waves churned by rocks plopping into a lake. In a new study, however, it’s water being transformed into the same consistency as wine, for example, or molasses.

Why do that? Imagine taking a fluid and making it do the work that now requires another material. But don’t look for a converter to turn your tap water into syrup for pancakes anytime soon.

In physicist Eric Corwin’s lab at the University of Oregon, researchers created a simple large-scaled system in which the waves they generated represented molecules that would be present in a microscale material. What they did provided a scientific proof-of-concept that appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

(Credit: U. Oregon)

The research shows that the surface of water can be altered to form a two-dimensional metafluid with independent control of effective internal temperature, molecular movement, and viscosity so that it takes on the quality of something else. A metafluid is a fluid engineered to have properties not found in nature.

In Corwin’s fluid, the behavior of the fluid is derived not from the microscopic properties of atoms and molecules but rather the macroscopic surface waves, called Faraday waves—named after British scientist Michael Faraday, who first described nonlinear standing waves in a paper published in 1831.

The random interactions of the surface waves on a vibrating dish of water act like a fluid containing properties that are wholly different from those of the underlying water. This metafluid provides independent control of effective internal temperature, molecular movement and viscosity, something impossible in conventional fluids.

Why food coloring droplets ‘dance’ around

“For us, right now, this is a very nice scientific platform for doing future experiments,” says Corwin, who also is a member of the University of Oregon’s Materials Science Institute. “What we might be hinting at here, for the future, is that if you can satisfy some basic criteria then you can construct a completely programmable material.

“We don’t want to just make materials; we want to understand how to make materials do what we want them to do.”

The thermal behavior of the everyday world comes from the constant, random motion of atoms and molecules. However, this same sort of constant, random motion is achievable in a macroscopic system such as the water in Corwin’s experimental design.

What happens, says lead author Kyle Welch, a doctoral student in Corwin’s lab, is that the Faraday waves interact and collide with one another, creating chaos as some slow down or change directions. “A test particle, floating on the surface, will experience these collisions, causing drag and diffusion properties usually only found in everyday thermal fluids,” he says.

To actually make water flow like wine one would need to change the properties of individual molecules. In Welch and Corwin’s system, the researchers easily changed the properties of the surface waves, resulting in easily controllable temperature and viscosity for a secondary metafluid.

See drops of water ‘trampoline’ higher and higher

Their success in a large-scale system doesn’t provide a roadmap to direct technological applications, Corwin says, but it does point toward possibilities for future research.

“Even though the waves are not molecules,” Corwin says, “all of the little waves are acting the same, as if they are in thermal equilibrium. They run around and collide with our tracer particles, causing them to diffuse. If we grab hold of the particles and try to move them, they resist that motion precisely the way that an equilibrium thermal system would.”

The finding of the research, Welch says, suggests that the behavior seen in these experiments using water is perhaps universal.

“If you build a system that has the right kind of randomness you can unlock a functionality that a conventional fluid would not have,” Welch says. “Material scientists have done amazing things—making alloys and mixing components together to get novel properties—but we’d like to get to a point where we can turn a knob and make a material turn into something new so that it can do something different.”

Alexander Liebman-Pelaez of Reed College, who worked in Corwin’s lab while participating in the university’s Research Experience for Undergraduates program, is a coauthor on the paper.

The NSF supported the research through a career award to Corwin.

Source: University of Oregon

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Are antihistamines worth it before a big workout?

woman runs past green

To cope with high pollen levels during vigorous exercise—like running the Boston Marathon—should an athlete pop a couple of antihistamines or no?

There’s no definitive answer yet, but new research finds that 795 (about 27 percent) of 3,000 genes activated after vigorous exercise become blunted in their responses during a three-hour recovery period if exercisers had taken strong doses of antihistamines.

John Halliwill, a professor in the department of human physiology at the University of Oregon, discovered in 2005 that naturally occurring histamines in the body relax blood vessels, increasing blood flow that aids post-exercise recovery. That emerged from his original focus on why some people, including athletes, pass out after vigorous physical exertion. He later found a link between an overactivation of two histamine receptors to drops in blood pressure.

Listen to Halliwill’s personal take on using antihistamines during extensive exercise:


The new study expands that research to a wider genetics level. Researchers sequenced RNA, molecules essential for making proteins and sending signals among genes, with state-of-the-art equipment in the university’s Genomics Core Facility.

“We were looking for pathways associated with the growth of new blood vessels,” says Halliwill, director of the Exercise and Environmental Physiology Lab. “We saw evidence of that, but we also saw gene expression associated with glucose uptake by muscles, restructuring of muscle in response to exercise, immune responses, and intercellular communications.”

Allegra and Zantac

In the research, 16 physically fit and active young adults performed an hour of knee-extension exercise at a pace of about 45 kicks per minute. Biopsies were done before exercise and three hours after to obtain samples from the quadriceps, the skeletal muscles on the side of the thighs.

Eight participants took 540 milligrams of fexofenadine (Allegra) and 300 milligrams of ranitidine (Zantac) at nearly three times the recommended dosages of the over-the-counter antihistamines. Together they target the two histamine receptors involved in both allergic reactions and exercise-recovery responses.

[Air pollution is no barrier to exercise]

Blood flow, blood pressure, and heart rate were monitored during the exercise. During the three-hour recovery window the research team was able to study early signs of gene expression; they found that 88 percent of the 795 genes affected by the antihistamines mostly responded with lower levels of expression.

“Histamine, a substance that we typically think of negatively and is most often associated with seasonal allergies, is an important substance contributing to the normal day-to-day response to exercise in humans,” says study leader Steven A. Romero, who is now a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.

In their conclusion, the study coauthors note that the research highlighted only a small fraction of genes likely involved in signaling pathways influenced by the activation of histamine receptors during recovery.

It’s up to the athlete

A key question is whether people should avoid taking antihistamines when they exercise. It’s too early to make that call, Halliwill says. For now, he says, people should use their own judgment about choosing to take or avoid antihistamines when performing when they know they will be exposed to allergens.

[Even tiny doses of running can extend lifespan]

“There are a lot of redundancies in physiological systems,” he says. “I wouldn’t be surprised if blocking histamine receptors ends up being overcome by something else, but I also wouldn’t be surprised if we can demonstrate that some responses to exercise training do become blunted if you take high doses of histamine blockers.”

The study available in the Journal of Physiology. The NIH and American Heart Association supported the research.

Source: University of Oregon

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Just the ‘terrible twos’ or signs of real trouble?

serious toddler

Some parents worry about whether their child’s early behavior is just the “terrible twos” or actions that will escalate to aggression, stealing, and fighting over time.

Now, researchers have found new clues identifying which children may be at risk for the worst antisocial outcomes and the source of these early problems.

The scientists focused on “callous-unemotional” (CU) behaviors, which include lack of empathy, lying, and little emotion. For example, a child who bullies others despite the consequences or how the victim feels.

“These are signs for parents and doctors to watch out for, as they may signal more than just the terrible twos,” says Luke Hyde, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Michigan.

[How to stop kids from becoming little bullies]

When these kinds of behaviors aren’t corrected, children could get into trouble with the law later in life. While most children grow out of the terrible twos to become well adjusted, research has shown that most career criminals started their antisocial behavior during their toddler years.

Callous-unemotional behaviors are very distinct from other behavior problems, says Jenae Neiderhiser, professor of psychology at Penn State. “If we can identify these kids early, we may have a better chance of intervening in a child’s development.”

Beyond identifying behaviors as early signs of trouble, the new study, published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, sheds light on the origins of the behaviors. Decades of research have shown that harsh and negative parenting is linked to the development of antisocial behavior.

“The challenge in this research has been knowing the true origins of these behaviors because parents both take care of their child and provide their child’s genes. So it’s been difficult to know if we’re seeing that parenting causes CU behaviors, or is just a sign of the genes being passed to the child,” Hyde says.

Nature vs. nurture

To examine the role of nature versus nurture, researchers followed 561 families in the Early Growth and Development Study, an adoption study which documented biological mothers’ history of severe antisocial behavior, as well as adoptive parent and child behaviors. Observations of adoptive mother positive reinforcement took place when the child was 18 months of age, and at 27 months, researchers examined the child’s behavior.

The team found that the biological mothers’ antisocial behavior predicted callous-unemotional behaviors in their children who were adopted as infants, despite having limited or no contact with them. That is, the behaviors were inherited.

However, researchers found high levels of positive reinforcement by adoptive mothers helped to mitigate callous-unemotional behaviors in their adopted children.

“These findings are important because they mean that treatment programs that help parents learn to be more positive can help to stem the development of CU behaviors,” says Rebecca Waller, a research fellow at the University of Michigan.

[Callous little kids may have behavior trouble later]

The team will be following this group of children through early adolescence to determine if these behaviors still persist from toddlerhood.

“The really exciting take-home message from this study is that small, day-to-day positive interactions that parents have with their young children can make a huge difference in children’s development,” says Leslie Leve, a professor at the University of Oregon.

“Even when a child has inherited a very challenging set of behaviors, hearing ‘good job’ or receiving a pat on the back can help protect that child from developing serious problems stemming from their inherited difficulties.”

The National Institutes of Health supported the work. Researchers from University of Pittsburgh, Yale University, George Washington University, and Wayne State University are study coauthors.

Source: University of Michigan

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Like rivers on land, melting water erodes Greenland’s ice

Meltwater channels in Greenland

To get a clearer idea of how Greenland’s ice sheet is responding to climate change, scientists are taking a closer look at the drainage channels of water as it melts during the summer.

The work suggests the resulting erosion on the ice sheet shapes landscapes similarly to, but much faster than, rivers do on land.

“How fast is the ice sheet melting, and how much the melt will contribute to rising sea levels are important questions,” says Leif Karlstrom, a professor in geological sciences at the University of Oregon. “It is important to quantify the melt rate, but that is not easy.

“Our study allows us to use geometric characteristics of the channel network—their patterns on the landscape—as a diagnostic tool.”

Projections on sea-level rise, such as those done with remote sensing or satellite observations, he says, have been difficult to determine accurately because melt rates vary widely each year, based on such factors as summer temperatures and elevations across the ice sheet.

Like rivers on land

In the study, Karlstrom and Kang Yang of the University of California, Los Angeles, analyzed high-resolution satellite imagery from NASA digital elevation models that let them see the slope of the ice sheet and underlying bedrock. They focused on stream channels at four levels of the ice sheet, from 1,000 meters (3,280 feet) to 1,600 meters (5,249 feet), of southwest Greenland.

Geometrical characteristics of these streams—called supraglacial channels because they occur on the ice surface—mimic features often found for rivers on land. Such similarities of erosion patterns on ice and land, despite having different mechanisms, came as a surprise, Karlstrom says.

Listen to Karlstom describe the similarities


On the ice sheet surface, erosion occurs as meltwater streams carve drainage channels by melting underlying ice. On land, rivers carve drainage channels by pushing and plucking sediment as they flow toward the sea, cutting down as the land surface uplifts due to tectonic activity.

Geologists who study geomorphology—how landscapes form—now have a virtual real-time model to test theories of landscape evolution, Karlstrom says. River erosion on land occurs over millions of years, but streams on the ice sheet carve their routes much more rapidly. In the study, researchers documented daily incision by flowing meltwater of up to 10 centimeters (4 inches).

“It’s lower elevations at the margins of the ice sheet that experience the most melt,” Karlstrom says.

River erosion stops each year when freezing temperatures return. Frozen channels from previous years remain visible, providing a yearly history of erosion patterns much like tree rings reflect age, he says.

In addition to using glacial melt to test theories of land-based geological processes, the researchers suggest an application to studies of other planets. The study, which NASA supported, appears in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

Source: University of Oregon

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3D-printed flower shows how ‘Dracula orchids’ trick bugs

Using a 3D printer, scientists have unlocked the mystery of how plants called Dracula orchids use mimicry to attract flies and ensure their survival.

The research, done in the last unlogged watershed in western Ecuador, is a win in the field of evolutionary biology and helps provide information that should benefit conservation efforts. The approach could also be applicable to studies of other plant-pollinator systems, researchers say.

Tobias Policha: The view of the fly

“Mimicry is one of the best examples of natural selection that we have,” says Barbara “Bitty” Roy, a biologist at the University of Oregon. “How mimicry evolves is a big question in evolutionary biology. In this case, there are about 150 species of these orchids. How are they pollinated? What sorts of connections are there? It’s a case where these orchids plug into an entire endangered system.”

Dracula orchids grow in Central America and northwest reaches of the Andes Mountains in South America. The Dracula label literally means “little dragon” because of a face-like feature in the flowers. Some observers say they see Count Dracula as a bat that appears in vampire depictions in literature and the movies.

[These 3D copper objects are smaller than a human hair]

“Dracula orchids look and smell like mushrooms,” says Tobias Policha, an adjunct instructor and plant scientist in the Institute of Ecology and Evolution and lead author of the study that is published online in the journal New Phytologist. “We wanted to understand what it is about the flowers that is attractive to these mushroom-visiting flies.”

The researchers closely studied 22 orchids, looking piece-by-piece, to determine where specific scents are produced in the flowers and which ones possibly lure pollinators—in this case 11 species of fruit flies that thrive among wild mushrooms that grow near the orchids.

To test their work in the forest, they turned to odor-free, silicone copies of orchids made with a 3D printer.

The 3D copies—the same shape and size of real ones—allowed the researchers to apply various color patterns and extracts of the various scents. Among the mix of experiments they also used chimeras—3D copies with real and artificial parts—that allowed them to disentangle which parts were attractive. Flies were drawn to the fabricated plants as if they were real.

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The findings show that the key part of the orchids’ mimicry is the mushroom-like labellum, which is attached to the plant’s narrow reproductive column.

“What the orchid wants the fly to do when it arrives is to crawl into the column, whereupon the orchid sticks a pollinium onto the fly so that the fly can’t possibly get it off,” Roy says. “The fly then goes to another orchid, which then pulls it off.”

A pollinium is gooey package, resembling a saddlebag, and contains an orchid’s pollen. Flies spend up to an hour inside the plant’s reproductive column, which is a snug fit to a select few of the more than 80 species of drosophilid flies that have been identified so far in the area.

Other researchers from the University of Oregon, Cornell University, and Aberystwyth University are coauthors of the study. The 3D versions were made by coauthor Melinda Barnadas, co-owner of Magpie Studio, which fabricates scientific artwork for museums. The National Geographic Society and National Science Foundation supported the work.

Source: University of Oregon

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