New research conducted at Michigan State University and published in the current issue of Nature Chemical Biology, features a chemistry approach that's solving some of the riddles of the complex protein-building process of folding. When it goes right, strings of amino acids become well-ordered, three-dimensional proteins in a split second. When it goes awry, though, it's the first step of many serious diseases. When errors happen in folding, proteins clump together, form plaques such as those found in Parkinson's disease and cystic fibrosis, and cause cells to degenerate. Understanding folding could lead to medicinal advances to treat these and other diseases at their earliest stage. "Our novel tool set can potentially be applied to analyze how disease mutations impact the structural and functional integrity of pathologically important membrane proteins," said Heedeok Hong, MSU chemist and study co-author. "This knowledge will ultimately help in designing treatments that can stabilize defective membrane proteins for their optimal function." The team focused on membrane proteins because roughly 30 percent of all proteins reside in this oily layer that encapsulates cells. Membrane proteins carry out many life functions, including the uptake of nutrients, secretion of wastes, maintaining ion balance and transmitting nerve signals. "Despite their importance, we know little about how membrane proteins fold because studying membrane protein folding has been formidable, due to the lack of adequate methods," Hong said. To tackle the membrane mysteries, the team developed a new method called "steric trapping." First, scientists attached two small molecular tags to a protein in its folded form. Next, they added bulky objects that bind the tags. The large attachments, by their sheer size alone, unravel the protein to its unfolded state. This simple yet eloquent procedure can test the stability of membrane proteins, show what unfolded membrane proteins look like and reveal how individual amino acids that are building a protein work together to maintain its folded shape. "Using this novel tag-binding system, or steric trapping, our team was able to observe and test membrane proteins without disturbing their native environment," Hong said. "Controlling folding and unfolding while keeping their native membrane environment has been one of the major methodological hurdles to solve the membrane protein folding problem. We have overcome one, and now we are ready for another." Explore further: Cell membrane proteins give up their secrets More information: Ruiqiong Guo et al. Steric trapping reveals a cooperativity network in the intramembrane protease GlpG, Nature Chemical Biology (2016). DOI: 10.1038/nchembio.2048
While there has been much speculation regarding brain size and intelligence, a new paper published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences confirms that species with brains that are large relative to their bodies are more intelligent. This research "represents a novel and rigorous experimental test of the relationship between brain size and problem-solving ability, using mammalian carnivores as our test group," said Kay Holekamp, an integrative biologist at Michigan State University (MSU), and senior author of the paper. "Our results show that having a larger brain really does improve an animal's ability to solve a problem it has never encountered before." Brain size is often used as a proxy for cognitive ability. Whether brain size can predict cognitive ability in animals has frequently been questioned, however, mainly because of the lack of any experimental evidence, Holekamp added. To tackle this lack of scientific data, Sarah Benson-Amram, a scientist at the University of Wyoming and the paper's first author, and collaborators traveled to nine U.S. zoos and presented 140 animals from 39 mammalian carnivore species with a novel problem-solving task. The study included polar bears, arctic foxes, tigers, river otters, wolves, spotted hyenas and some rare, exotic species, such as binturongs, snow leopards and wolverines. Each animal was given 30 minutes to extract food from a metal box, closed with a bolt latch. The box was scaled to the animal's size and baited with each study animal's preferred food—red pandas received bamboo and snow leopards got steak. "Does a larger brain imply greater intelligence?" asked George Gilchrist, program director in the National Science Foundation's (NSF) Division of Environmental Biology, which funded the research along with NSF's Divisions of Biological Infrastructure and Integrative Organismal Systems. "This is a key question for those studying brain evolution. To address that question, Gilchrist said, the researchers "devised a clever puzzle that could be presented to multiple species—and discovered a strong correlation between relatively large brain size and problem-solving ability." Overall, 35 percent of the animals successfully solved the problem. The bears had an almost 70 percent success rate, and meerkats and mongooses were the least successful, with no individuals from their species solving the problem. "This study offers a rare look at problem-solving in carnivores, and the results provide important support for the claim that brain size reflects an animal's problem-solving abilities as well as enhance our understanding of why larger brains evolved in some species," Benson-Amram said. The study also showed that neither manual dexterity nor living in larger social groups improved problem-solving success. "A hypothesis that has garnered much support in primate studies is 'the social brain hypothesis,' which proposes that larger brains evolved to deal with challenges in the social domain," said Holekamp, who is affiliated with NSF's BEACON Center for the Study of Evolution in Action. The hypothesis posits that intelligence evolved to enable animals to anticipate, respond to, and perhaps even manipulate the actions of others in their social groups, Holekamp said. "If the social brain hypothesis can predict success at solving non-social problems, then we would expect that species that live in larger social groups should be more intelligent," Holekamp said. "However, we did not find any support for that prediction in this study." Explore further: Hyenas that think outside the box solve problems faster
News Article | March 9, 2016
If you could hold bits of stardust on your palm, what would you do? For physicists at Michigan State University, investigating the particles is the best thing to do. The MSU research team is currently investigating microscopic dust grains from a meteoritic material found on our planet in hopes of unlocking secrets of our galaxy. The particles are believed to be spewed out by stellar explosions that occurred prior to the birth of the sun. The study, which will focus on whether these stardust particles came from classical nova explosions or not, is performed inside the university's National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory (NSCL). A classical nova is a thermonuclear explosion on the surface of a small star that is part of two stars orbiting each other, or what is called a binary star system. The explosion would have spewed out stellar material in the form of dust and gas into the space between stars in the galaxy. Some of the dust and gas would have been essential in the creation of our own solar system. Christopher Wrede, spokesperson for the study and an assistant professor of physics at MSU, noted a cosmic recycling process at work in the phenomenon. When stars die, they eject dust and gas that often get recycled into the next generation of planets and stars, he said. He and his colleagues at the NSCL conducted an experiment wherein they created and studied the exotic radioactive nuclei that have the strongest influence on the production of silicon isotopes in a series of novae. The team found that the pre-solar grains contain strange amounts of isotope silicon-30 - an isotope that is quite rare on Earth. Scientists know that silicon-30 is created in a classical novae, but do not know enough yet about the nuclear reaction rates in the explosion to be certain how much silicon-30 was created. This makes the origins of the pre-solar grains uncertain. Still, the new nuclear path and computer models of the explosion will help researchers identify the grains. Typical ways to study classical novae is by using telescopes and looking at the light, but Wrede said the pre-solar grains allow them to study the phenomena in a novel way. "[I]f you can actually hold a piece of the star in your hand and study it in detail, that opens a whole new window on these types of stellar explosions," Wrede said. The initial findings are featured in the journal Physical Review Letters.
News Article | March 9, 2016
A smartphone's fingerprint scanner can be fooled in only 15 minutes using a standard inkjet printer, conductive paper and a special type of ink. The news comes from a team of researchers at Michigan State University (MSU), who proved that the biometric security method has serious flaws. The reveal should raise some questions for the tech industry, where the handset manufacturers put their hopes for security into the fingerprint scanner. The team of researchers demonstrates that prints can be quickly gathered from the handset itself, printed out with a regular printer and then used for the device's unlocking. What made us shiver was the fact that a supposedly high-end flagship could be unlocked by using a simple piece of paper. The caveat is that the AgIC-manufactured paper and ink have conductive properties. The whole process takes no longer than 15 minutes. This is not the first time tech enthusiasts set out to spoof fingerprints. The MSU scientists give credit to Germany's Chaos Computer Club, which managed to bypass the fingerprint scanner on an iPhone 5s by forging 2.5D print out of wood glue or latex milk. The American team points out that the procedure made use of a time-consuming manual method that holds no candle to simply printing out the fingerprint emulator. AgIC paper allows users to print out a copy of a lifted fingerprint in no time. Just remember to flip the lifted fingerprint horizontally before printing. "This experiment further confirms the urgent need for anti-spoofing techniques for fingerprint recognition systems, especially for mobile devices which are being increasingly used for unlocking the phone and for payment," reads the presentation paper of the experiment. The good news is not all handsets are created equal, meaning that some are immune to the trick. However, the cautionary tale remains and we expect to see anti-spoofing techniques emerging soon from manufacturers. By using conductive ink, the scientists were able to print fingerprints on paper and use it to unlock smartphones such as the Galaxy S6 from Samsung and Honor 7 from Huawei. For Samsung, this is not the first handset that comes out as low on security. In the spring of 2014, a team of researchers broke into the Galaxy S5. Watch the video below to get an idea how easy the process actually is, and how frail the security measure shows to be. How do you feel about the ubiquitous presence of fingerprint sensor on modern smartphones? Let us know in the comments section.
But giant pandas, once again, buck a mammal trend. Michigan State University PhD student Thomas Connor continues an effort begun by his colleague Vanessa Hull to try to combine MSU's data-rich effort in tracking five pandas with GPS collars with other similar studies. The goal: parse out a better understanding at how these elusive bears behave in their remote environs in southwestern China. Hull is a co-author on the current paper. The paper "Telemetry research on elusive wildlife: a synthesis of studies on giant pandas" in this month's Integrative Zoology discovers that the several small studies of pandas wearing tracking collars gain new significance when compared with a broader history. His review of the data from five studies teased out tantalizing insights into how the endangered pandas behave. It's important to understand as climate change and human development require detailed intelligence on how they live, and thus how they can best be protected while the needs of the people who live amongst them are met. "So much is still unknown about how pandas use their habitat," said Jianguo "Jack" Liu, Rachel Carson Chair in Sustainability and Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability director. "Pandas are a part of coupled human and natural systems where humans share their habitat. Anything we can learn about how they live and what they need can ultimately help inform good conservation policies." Connor says females seem to rival the males in distances moved from home during mating season, a behavior overlooked in previous small studies that seemed to indicate the females waited around for male callers. He says there's also evidence that the "subadult" females—think adolescents—tend to disperse further than males, though they may return near their original home range to give birth and raise their cubs. A 2001 book notes this roaming behavior is not without risk for the females. One ventured far and returned home emaciated and wounded and later died. "The tendency for female natal dispersal is an interesting behavioral adaptation that is uncommon in mammals, and not found in any other bear species," Connor said. The pandas in the studies live in two mountain ranges - the Qionglai range, where the famous Wolong Nature Reserve is located, and the Qinling Mountains to the north. Connor said the analysis of the many studies raised enticing new questions. Past studies did not agree on whether the brownish pandas in the Qinling range, which look a bit different from the more familiar Wolong pandas, had smaller or larger home ranges compared to those in the Qionglai. There is in fact no difference at all, Connor now thinks. He's convinced that despite a larger seasonal migration in the Qinling, pandas in both areas use a similar amount of territory. As he begins his doctoral work on pandas, Connor found tantalizing bits of information and questions - were the handful of aggressive behaviors witnessed signs of territorial nature? There's evidence that both sexes of pandas play the field in mating season, courting more than one suitor, yet is promiscuous mating an aberration or the norm? And what's up with those Qinling mountain pandas in a 2001 study that moved to high elevations in the summer, a usual pattern, yet stayed there through the harsh winter months? "It is fascinating that in a species as well known as the giant panda, there are still so many uncertainties and unanswered questions," Connor said. "In addition to mysteries surrounding their behavior and ecology, much remains unknown concerning the effect of human disturbance on panda individuals and populations. In a time of rapid expansion, but also considerable conservation effort in China, a better understanding of this panda-human interaction is crucial to make these efforts effective in the future."