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California Poultry Giant To Shift Away From Using Antibiotics In Its Poultry

By Geoffrey Mohan, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

California poultry giant Foster Farms has joined the flock of meat companies eschewing the use of antibiotics, pledging to eliminate all those used to combat infection in humans.

The company’s promise comes ahead of Tuesday’s White House forum on the use of antibiotics, and amid rising concern that use of the drugs to raise livestock has aided the proliferation of resistant strains of bacteria among humans.

More than 2 million people in the U.S. are infected with such strains annually, and at least 23,000 die as a result, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Our company is committed to responsible growing practices that help preserve the effectiveness of antibiotics for human health and medicine,” Foster Farms Chief Executive and President Ron Foster said.

Although over-prescription of antibiotics to humans has been a long-term driver of drug-resistant strains, antibiotic use for animals also has been linked to resistant strains of salmonella and campylobacter.

Foster Farms introduced two new antibiotic-free product lines in April: Certified Organic and Simply Raised.

The company has eliminated all antibiotics that the U.S. Agriculture Department and the Food and Drug Administration deem critical to human medicine, said company spokesman Ira Brill.

“We have a long-term goal of fully eliminating all antibiotics that are used in the practice of human medicine,” he said.

Brill said he could not offer a timeline for a complete elimination of antibiotics that also are prescribed to humans. “I don’t think we can put a date on that except to say that we are aggressively working towards that goal,” he said.

The company is researching alternative practices to improve overall flock health, Brill said. “As you continue to improve bird health, then your need for antibiotics declines,” he said.

ConAgra to pay $11.2 million to settle salmonella criminal case

Foster’s change of heart about antibiotics follows shifts away from use of human antibiotics by fellow poultry giant Perdue, as well as retail food chains McDonald’s, Chick-fil-A, Chipotle and Panera, among others.

The CEO of Sanderson Farms, however, told the Wall Street Journal recently that he has no plans to move away from antibiotics.

Consumer pressure for antibiotics-free meat has intensified over the last several years. Sales of organic beef, pork, poultry and fish increased 11 percent from 2012 to 2013, to $675 million, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group pushing to limit use of the drugs.

Jonathan Kaplan, director of the group’s food and agriculture program, credited Foster Farms for being “on track and heading in the right direction.”

But the company’s announcement “is not quite as robust as what Perdue has already accomplished or what Tyson has pledged to do,” Kaplan said. “They still have committed to moving away from the medically important antibiotics, and that’s the main concern.”

About a third of the broiler chickens produced now are raised with tight restrictions on antibiotic use, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.

“We definitely feel like we are hitting a tipping point for antibiotic stewardship in the poultry industry,” Kaplan said. “This is more than a microtrend. This is a tsunami.”

Foster Farms, which employs about 12,000 people nationally and has sales of $2.7 billion, is based in Livingston, Calif., about 65 miles east of San Jose, and operates five production facilities in the state as well as numerous ranches.

The company has battled back from a 2013 outbreak of salmonella that sickened hundreds of people in 2013, as well as a more recent cockroach infestation and rash of food safety citations at its Livingston plant.

Since then, it has revamped its food safety procedures. Measured salmonella prevalence on poultry at Foster facilities is now well below USDA and industrywide standards, Brill said.

“If you look back on the food safety issues, that was an area where we probably satisfied ourselves with being average — and we realized you cannot lead in a lot of areas if you don’t lead in all areas,” Brill said. “Right now, consumers can look at Foster Farms as about the safest chickens you can buy.”

Photo: No more drugs in your food? Major win. Creativity103 via Flickr

Can Money Buy Your Kids A Bigger Brain?

By Geoffrey Mohan, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

Research has shown that a person’s position in the economic pecking order can have a lasting effect on cognitive development. But can it also affect the size and shape of the brain?

A new study suggests that a family’s socioeconomic status correlates with the surface area of children’s brains, regardless of genetic ancestry, race, and other factors.

Not only does mom and dad’s salary appear to account for variability in surface area of children’s brains, but a small raise for those on the low- or middle-income scale seems to have a disproportionately bigger effect on children’s brain size and scores on cognitive tests, according to the study, published online in the journal Nature Neuroscience.

“We’ve known for a long time that cognitive development, school performance, and productivity in adult life can be impacted by socioeconomic status, but now we’re actually seeing it in the brain,” said Elizabeth Sowell, a developmental neuroscientist at the Saban Research Institute at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, and lead investigator of the study.

Still, exactly how parental income might determine brain development is uncertain — many factors come along with income, and each may turn out to have a role.

“Money can buy better education, homes in areas further away from freeways; it can buy guitar lessons. It can buy after-school programs; it can buy better health care, better nutrition,” Sowell said. “It’s all of those things that money can buy that lead to more enriched experiences for children in wealthier families.”

Those experiences physically reshape the brain over time. Researchers were particularly interested in changes in surface area, which have been associated with the way the brain improves connectivity through a process somewhat analogous to adding insulation to wiring.

They used a pediatric database that includes brain images, genotypes, cognitive tests, and developmental history for more than 1,000 young people, ages 3 to 20. That database, known as the Pediatric Imaging, Neurocognition, and Genetics project, also includes information on parental income and education.

Both income and education correlated with brain surface area, particularly in areas associated with language, reading, and executive function. But further analysis showed that only income uniquely accounted for the variance in surface area, the study found.

Both income and surface area also correlated with four tests of cognition, the study found.

Perhaps as important, genetic ancestry and race did not prove to be decisive factors, according to the study. Those factors often wind up intertwined with socioeconomic status, the authors said.

So are we damned by our parents’ income? Not quite, the researchers say. Not only are there notable exceptions — lots of poor achieve high education goals — but small investments at critical periods can have big effects, the data suggest.

“We think that if we could make changes to enrich environments that we could alter development,” Sowell said.

(c)2015 Los Angeles Times, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

Photo: Steven Depolo via Flickr

Antarctic Ice Shelves Melting 70 Percent Faster In Last Decade, Study Shows

By Geoffrey Mohan, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

The frozen fringes of western Antarctica have been melting 70 percent faster in the last decade, raising concern that an important buttress keeping land-based ice sheets from flowing to the sea could collapse or vanish in coming decades, a new study shows.

An acceleration in the flow of massive ice sheets would add substantially to the ongoing rise of sea levels, according to Fernando Paolo, a geophysicist at the University of California, San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography and lead author of the study published online Thursday in the journal Science.

“They hold back the ice discharge from the ice sheet into the ocean,” Paolo said. “In the long term, that is the main concern from losing volume from an ice shelf.”

The study adds to growing concern that climate change has altered the equilibrium of growth and melt on a part of the continent holding an estimated 530,000 cubic miles of ice. That’s enough ice to raise the sea level by 11 feet, by some estimates.

“If the rate of change that we have observed remains the same, then we should expect a larger contribution of the ice sheet to sea level rise,” Paolo said.

Shelves in the Bellingshausen and Amundsen seas had the most rapid thinning, losing an average of 24 to 63 feet per decade, according to the study, which analyzed satellite-based radar data from 1994-2012.

The most dramatic loss occurred on the Venable ice shelf on the Bellingshausen Sea, which thinned by an average of 118 feet per decade, according to the study. At that rate, it could disappear in 100 years. The same fate could befall the Crosson shelf on the Amundsen Sea, the study found.

Those rates are conservative “lower bound” estimates, said Paolo.

On the eastern side of Antarctica, previous ice sheet growth has ground to a halt over the last decade, the study showed.

The mechanics behind the changes in the east and west of Antarctica, however, are different, largely because the geology of each is distinct.

Glaciers form from the long-term accumulation of snowfall that compresses and flows slowly downhill toward the sea. In the east, these ice masses are predominantly anchored to land, so growth and decline are driven largely by changes in snowfall. Those glaciers nonetheless have tongue-like extensions floating on the sea, and studies have shown these shelves are thinning as rapidly as those in the west.

In the west, most of the ice sheet already is floating on the sea and is “grounded” to the continent below sea level. Warmer waters coming into contact with that boundary, or grounding line, are thinning it from the bottom, causing more of the sheet to become buoyant. That effectively causes this grounding line to migrate inward, potentially for many miles.

Such a retreat is particularly dangerous in the many areas of western Antarctica that have a retrograde shoreline — where the inland slope is downward. The retreat of the grounding line in those areas could trigger runaway acceleration of land glaciers, according to the study.

“After we pass that tipping point, the ice sheet just keeps flowing” regardless of the ocean water’s influence, Paolo said.

The forces driving both trends point toward altered wind patterns over Antarctica that bring less precipitation to east Antarctica and warmer water to the continent’s ice shelves. That, in turn, is likely caused by long-term changes in climate linked to the warming effect of increased carbon building up in Earth’s atmosphere, Paolo said.

By clustering the data in three-month snapshots over 18-mile swaths, the researchers were able to offer a high-resolution view of many individual shelves and differentiate short-term, local fluctuations from longer climate-related trends. Several earlier studies looked at shorter intervals over much broader regions, the authors noted.

The more detailed mosaic presented by the new study nonetheless offered little to surprise Eric Rignot, a glaciologist at UC Irvine and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Canada-Flintridge, California.

His research, which analyzed 40 years of data, suggests that many glaciers already have reached a point of no return.

“It does emphasize that a number of ice shelves are not healthy, which is bad news for the glaciers that flow into them because the glaciers will start flowing faster and raise sea level faster,” Rignot said.

Photo: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center via Flickr

Greenland Ice Loss More ‘Local’ Than Thought, Climate Study Says

By Geoffrey Mohan, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

When it comes to melting ice on Greenland, climate change experts got everything right but the present.

That means Greenland’s contribution to sea level rise this century remains roughly the same — three inches — but where it comes from and how it gets to the ocean are now more clear, according to a new study that crunched 20 years of NASA data.

The findings will make climate models far more precise, according to the researchers.

Until now, the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change based its estimation of ice loss from Greenland on the four largest of an estimated 242 major outlet glaciers on that land mass, and admitted its modeling was at a “fairly early stage,” according to the study.

The new study, published online this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, reconstructs ice thickness at about 100,000 sites, at a scale of single glaciers or drainage basins.

“These are billions of measurements, so the actual number of observations is really huge,” said the study’s lead author, Beata Csatho, a geophysicist at the University at Buffalo, N.Y.

There are about 656,000 square miles of ice on Greenland, or roughly three times the acreage of Texas. If all of that ice melted, it would raise average sea levels about 20 feet, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center.

Several factors are important to figuring out how much fresh water could be dumped into the world’s oceans, where it could potentially alter water cycles that drive Earth’s climate. The large-scale fluctuation of melt versus precipitation is relatively well known, but how ice changes locally as it grinds against underlying bedrock “is not well understood at all,” said Csatho.

Those local-level dynamics are responsible for nearly half of the ice loss — 48 percent — according to Monday’s study.

The researchers used 20 years of NASA’s laser-based measurements of elevation changes, which are accurate to about a centimeter. They found that Greenland shed 243 billion tons of ice annually from 2003-2009, but in fits and starts, and hardly uniformly.

Southeastern Greenland, for example, was responsible for nearly half of the overall ice loss — its glaciers thinned rapidly, reaching a peak discharge of 166 billion tons in 2005, according to the study. Two of the four glaciers used in the IPCC model are from that region, Csatho said.

The region’s accelerated loss eased, however, as several glaciers and some high-elevation ice masses actually thickened, the study found. By 2009, however, losses accelerated again, while the northwest region experienced an uninterrupted thinning during the six-year time period, according to the study.

Overall, said Csatho, the newly calculated ice losses are close to range projected by the existing IPCC model, which “is more likely underestimating” ice loss, Csatho said.

“IPCC got everything right, but the present,” she said.

“The thing to understand is that these models have relied on data sets that are poorly known,” said Eric Larour, a NASA-JPL cryosphere scientist who manages the agency’s Ice Sheet System Model.

Larour, Csatho and others at Argonne National Lab and the University of California, Irvine, did a bit of mathematical reverse-engineering of climate models and came up with estimates of surface mass gains and losses as well as the small-scale effects of friction between the ice and bedrock.

“Those are very difficult to observe from space, but if you have a model and surface elevations that are observed from space, you can infer those unknowns,” Larour said.

“We now can infer the state of the ice,” he added. “Now the model matches the observations better, so it’s more reliable.”

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Stress Reaction May Be In Your Dad’s DNA, Study Finds

By Geoffrey Mohan, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

Stress in this generation could mean resilience in the next, a new study suggests.
Male mice subjected to unpredictable stressors produced offspring that showed more flexible coping strategies when under stress, according to a study published online Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications.

The secret might be hidden in a small change in how certain genes are regulated in the sperm of the father and in the brains of offspring, the study found.

Several studies have shown that stress in early life not only can affect the individual’s behavior and cognitive functions, but can affect the next generation. So researchers have been eager to find any trace of changes in DNA coding that might underlie their observations.

Before you pen a “thanks for the resilience” Father’s Day card, consider: The study involved mice, not humans. More important, even the seemingly more resilient mice had lots of negative behaviors — depression and anti-social tendencies among them.

“If we look at the whole behavior of these animals, the benefit is really a very small proportion of the effects,” said study co-author Isabelle Mansuy, a neuroscientist at the University of Zurich’s Brain Research Institute. “Most other effects are fairly negative, because the animals are depressed, are anti-social, and have cognitive impairment.”

Researchers tried to mimic the effects of erratic parenting and a stressful home environment. So they separated male mouse pups from their mothers for several hours a day over the first two weeks of life, during which time they were occasionally restrained or forced to swim for five minutes — all at unpredictable intervals.

The mice then matured in social groups of four or five unrelated mice of the same sex that had equally unpredictable childhoods. Then they were matched to females, producing pups of their own. Once the pups grew up, they were subjected to various mazes that test the ability to show goal-oriented and flexible behavior under stress.

Compared with a control group, the offspring of stressed dads showed less hesitation in exploring an arm of a maze. And when offered the choice of getting a drink of water immediately or waiting for sugared water, the offspring of stressed males tended to wait for the greater reward. They also were better at figuring out changed rules — rewards that were moved from one spot to another, or cues that were changed.

Numerous studies of the effects of stress implicate a loop in the brain’s limbic system, which mediates emotion and causes the release of the stress hormone cortisol. That chemical can amp up a feedback loop to the brain.

Much of this stress-related reaction in the brain is mediated, in part, by a mineralocorticoid receptor, or MR, in brain cells.

The study found small changes in regulatory DNA sequences near an MR gene in sperm cells of the stressed mice. Such changes in gene regulation in response to the environment are known as epigenetic processes. The study found epigenetic markers associated with a half-dozen genes in the brain cells in the hippocampus of the offspring of stressed male mice.

Together, these changes offer a hint at a possible path for passing the effects of stress from one generation to the next.

Soldiers may offer a prime example, Mansuy said. “Many soldiers are people from lower socioeconomic environments and many of them have been exposed to violence, to broken families and to bad conditions when they were young,” she said. “And many of these people are stress-resilient, and they also have some adaptive advantages when they are placed in a situation of danger or challenge. They have developed coping strategies perhaps that other people have not.”

Still, she noted, these enhanced resiliency behaviors were “the only benefit” observed among the mice.

Researchers have been trying to untangle the effects of genetics and family background in post-traumatic stress disorder among soldiers returning from war.

Photo via WikiCommons

Is Autism Like A Magic Show That Won’t End

By Geoffrey Mohan, Los Angeles Times

The brain is a biological machine that makes predictions. But what happens when a wrench is thrown in the works, and jams up the ability to foresee the trajectory of a moving object, or what happens after a frown?

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology believe such a wrench lies at the core of autism, a disorder with widely disparate symptoms that strike with varied intensity.
Social and language deficits, repetitive behavior, hypersensitivity to stimuli and other symptoms may be manifestations of an impaired ability to predict the behavior of the outside world, according to an analysis published online Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

An impairment in the ability to place stimuli in context with what came before and after them leaves people with autism struggling with a seemingly capricious world that makes excruciating demands on their attention, according to the report.

“We sometimes affectionately call this the magical world theory of autism,” said MIT neuroscientist Pawan Sinha, lead author of the study. “The hallmark of a magical performance is the surprise, the unpredictability of the outcome. … Although for a brief period of time, a magic show might be pleasurable, if one is constantly immersed in that kind of a magical world, one can begin to get overwhelmed.”

Those who follow developments in the field of autism research can be forgiven if they sometimes think scientists are grasping at different parts of an elephant in a pitch-dark room. Studies often isolate the oddities of certain brain regions or genes, focus on isolated symptoms or examine niches of the disorder.

About 1 in 68 children have been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The new analysis does not offer new data – it instead surveyed developments in the field and tried to unite them under one over-arching hypothesis. It is likely to draw the attention of neuroscientists in large part because it was led by Richard Held, an emeritus MIT professor who has researched the brain for a half century. (His 92nd birthday is Friday.)

“This paper is deliberately a theory-heavy paper,” said Sinha. “We wanted to take a broader look at many pieces of experimental evidence that have already been collected by many different labs and see whether there were some commonalities, some way to explain the very diverse collection of results.”

The MIT researchers believe that impaired prediction often leads to anxiety, which can lead to many of the behaviors that have come to be associated with autism spectrum disorder.
For example, many people with autism are hypersensitive to sensory stimuli, even though studies show their senses are no more acute than those of others. Some can’t wear tight clothing because they find it irritating.

The authors suggest that people on the autism spectrum don’t habituate well to outside stimuli. While typical brains “get used to” touch, sounds and sights, and can prioritize them, the autistic brain is unable to do so and is constantly aroused.

That hypersensitivity is at the heart of another attempt to unify the symptoms of autism, known at the “intense world theory.” It holds that hyper-reactive brain circuits can become autonomous and follow their own development path. This could explain many extremes in relatively narrow areas, such as near-photographic memory as well as acute sensation, emotion and attention, according to the theory outlined by Swiss researchers Kamila and Henry Markram.

The theory, however, “leaves open what is causing the intensity of the world,” said Sinha. “We are saying that the world perhaps is appearing hyper-intense because it appears unpredictable,” he said.

Under the predictive impairment hypothesis, social difficulties could stem from an inability to place behaviors in context, such as what usually comes before or after a smile, a cry or a shout.

In addition, people with autism often fill their lives with routines, and some even resort to repetitive or self-stimulating behaviors, which “almost seem to be an attempt to impose order on a seemingly chaotic world,” Sinha noted.

The report suggested several general ways to test the hypothesis, and highlighted brain regions related to prediction that also are implicated in autism, such as the cerebellum, basal ganglia and anterior cingulate cortex.

“This theory is intuitive; it makes sense,” said University of California, Los Angeles neuroscientist Dr. Carlos Portera-Cailliau, who was not involved in the analysis. “It’s very exciting that people are thinking about autism beyond experiments like I do in the lab.”

Nonetheless, the hypothesis does not address “the underlying defect in the brain” that impairs prediction, Portera-Cailliau said. “I think that’s where more work needs to be done — what are the experiments that can be done to test this theory and prove it right or wrong?”

Photo via Wikicommons

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Early Treatment May Decrease Autism Signs

By Geoffrey Mohan, Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES — How early can autism be detected in babies, and how soon can they be treated?

A baby’s first birthday visit to the pediatrician usually includes a screening for the social deficits common with autism spectrum disorder. But doctors and scientists tend to agree that they can’t make a very reliable diagnosis until the toddler is 2 years old. The bulk of treatment programs begin then.

Several recent studies, however, have documented subtle signs of the disorder, including erratic eye motion, among infants as young at 2 months old. That and other behavioral differences become more noticeable between 6 months and a year of age, other studies have shown.

Researchers at the University of California, Davis’ MIND Institute have been watching and playing with babies for many years to study autism and other development issues. This time, researchers set out to test whether they could accurately identify early signs associated with autism, and whether parents would be willing and able to follow directed therapy aimed at improving interaction with their babies. And if they did, would it help?

The study, published online Tuesday in the Journal of Autism and Development Disorders, suggests a qualified yes on all counts. The data from the pilot program jibe with a growing body of research that shows that guided social interaction between a mother and her baby can decrease autism symptoms by age 3.

The babies whose parents underwent the coaching showed far fewer autism-related measures at 3 than peers whose parents declined to participate, even though their infants met all criteria. Infants in the training program also scored higher than non-participants who later were diagnosed with autism, the study found.

“It gives us a little hint that the children may well have gone on to have more difficulties had we not done this intervention early,” said lead investigator Sally J. Rogers, a developmental psychologist at the MIND Institute. “But it’s only a hint, not proof.”

The sample of the pilot study was small — just seven babies from UC Davis programs or the community underwent training, and babies were not assigned randomly to different treatments. So, results will have to withstand more rigorous testing.

In some ways, the study was as much a test for parents as for babies. Researchers wanted to know whether mothers could be professionally coached to maximize opportunities to connect with babies who often don’t make eye contact and can exhibit repetitive behaviors and become obsessed with a single toy or other object. These and other symptoms had been identified among study subjects through the Autism Observation Scale for Infants and other clinical measures.

“These were very atypical infants, and everyone who interacted with them recognized that,” Rogers said. “So I do think we found a group of children who had very atypical social communication development.”

Mothers (with their babies) went through 12 weekly one-hour training and observation sessions with professional therapists. Several families received “booster” sessions or were referred to extra therapy, such as speech coaching. Babies underwent regular developmental testing, usually at intervals of three months, until they were 36 months old.

Control groups were culled from 126 infants enrolled at the MIND Institute’s Infant Sibling project, which studies the development trajectory of siblings of children with autism diagnoses.

Photo via WikiCommons

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Physicist Puts Time On Timeless Monet Painting

By Geoffrey Mohan, Los Angeles Times

The Impressionist art movement began Nov. 13, 1872, right around 7:35 a.m. local time.

That’s the moment Claude Monet put brush to canvas to depict a hazy sunrise seen from his hotel room in Le Havre, according to Donald Olson, a physicist at Texas State University, San Marcos.

The name Monet gave to that now famous work, “Impression, Soleil Levant,” (Impression, Sunrise) later was affixed to a school of art marked by its imprecise, subjective depiction of quotidian scenes, executed with loose brush strokes in vivid hues.

Art historians have debated where and when Monet’s work was painted, with many disbelieving the abbreviated date “72” that the artist brushed beside his name. Others even insisted the plummy skies streaked with orange depicted a sunset, rather than sunrise, over the port city on the Normandy coast.

Olson, who dubs himself a “celestial sleuth,” pored over hundreds of photographs and scores of historical maps of Le Havre before determining the precise room that matched the artist’s southeast-facing perspective.

EBay’s French site proved a boon — scores of historical photos have been posted there, Olson said. Those helped him find the structures depicted in Monet’s “Le Grand Quai,” painted from a balcony of the Hotel de L’Amiraute. A bit of geometry and trigonometry led him to the precise position Monet likely occupied when painting.

Olson next calculated the sun’s height from the horizon and its angle of rise, which determined the time of year and time of day depicted in the painting. He settled on late fall or early winter, at 7:30-8:30 a.m. local time. (Greenwich Mean Time had not been adopted as a worldwide standard, but France’s local times were within a minute of current measures, Olson said. France has since changed the time zone of Le Havre to GMT plus 1).

Fellow Texas State physicist Ed Piner offered the next breakthrough, Olson said: The tall, multiple-masted ships depicted by Monet likely could not have been in the distant outer harbor unless tides were high.

“That suggests you’re looking at a high tide, near a rising sun in a certain azimuth,” Olson said. But that only narrowed the possibilities to 19 dates spanning from November 1872 to January 1873.

Much to Olson’s surprise, a trove of 19th century daily weather observations in Le Havre harbor went online recently. He matched the sky and weather conditions to six dates in that period, then narrowed them to two days when the observer noted easterly morning winds — smoke in Monet’s painting drifts slightly from east to west.

On Nov. 15, 1872, at 7:35 a.m., the weather observer noted light winds from the southeast with mist, fog, and calm seas.

“All of the times I was considering were between 7:30 and 8:30 a.m.,” Olson said. “So, on exactly the time of day I want to know about, we have a guy looking at the water and looking at the sky. The guy was out there every day at 8 in the morning.”

A weather report on Jan. 25, 1873, also matched conditions and other data, but curators opted for the November date, since Monet dated his painting “72.”

This was far from Olson’s first bout of applying science to art. He and his research team have linked the luridly orange sky of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” with drifting emissions from the Krakatoa volcanic eruption, and dated a Monet depiction of a sunset near the cliffs on the Normandy coast as well as three Van Gogh works. He also calculated the place where Ansel Adams snapped his shutter to capture an Autumn moon from Glacier Point in Yosemite National Park — and organized a reenactment of the shot, under similar celestial conditions, in 2005.

Olson had puzzled over the sunrise over Le Havre for 15 or more years, putting it aside for other projects. After publication in February of his work on the other Monet painting, “The Cliff, Etretat, Sunset,” French curators urged Olson to reexamine the Le Havre sunrise — they were planning an exhibition that opens Sept. 18 at the Musee Marmottan Monet in Paris.

The museum published a “biography” of the Monet work, co-written by Olson, in conjunction with the exhibit, which runs through Jan. 18.

Photo via WikiCommons(U.S. public domain)

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Ships And Blue Whales On A Collision Course Off California Coast

By Geoffrey Mohan, Los Angeles Times

Blue whales cluster for long periods of time in the busy Pacific Ocean shipping lanes off the California coast, raising concern about collisions between vessels and the endangered marine mammals, a new study has found.

Researchers used satellites to track 171 tagged blue whales over 15 years to produce the most detailed maps of the feeding areas of the marine mammals, which are protected from hunting under international regulations and are listed as endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. The study was published this week in the online journal Plos One.

“It’s an unhappy coincidence,” said lead author Ladd Irvine, a marine mammal ecologist at Oregon State University. “The blue whales need to find the densest food supply. There’s a limited number of those dense places, and it seems as though two of the main regular spots are crossed by the shipping lanes.”

The biggest overlap between the whales and ships occurs between July and October near the western Channel Islands, off Santa Barbara, with somewhat smaller overlaps near the Gulf of the Farallones, near San Francisco, and farther north at the northern edge of Cape Mendocino, according to the study.

The study’s conclusions are at odds with some previous research, based on more rudimentary sightings of whales, that suggested that shifts in shipping lanes would not affect the whales because they are too widely dispersed. The new study found more dense concentrations and tracked them over longer periods of time, an average of two to three months. One whale remained tagged for nearly a year and a half.

“This is far and away the most detailed look that we’ve gotten on where these whales go, and the timing of when they’re present and when they move,” Irvine said.

“The nice thing about the satellite data is you get a longer-term snapshot that crosses over multiple years,” said Monica DeAngelis, a marine mammal biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration who has worked on previous efforts to protect whales from ship collisions.

“We knew that there were important habitat features in the ocean that we inferred these animals were homing in on, for feeding. But we were not sure of the extent of importance of these features,” DeAngelis said. “It gives us a lot more insight into what whales are doing.”

The largest animals on Earth, blue whales can grow to more than 100 feet in length and can weigh 150 tons. About 2,500 of an estimated worldwide population of 10,000 congregate in the waters off the West Coast.

In 2012, the International Maritime Organization agreed to divert southbound ships more than a mile away from Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa islands, off Santa Barbara, and elongated another lane in the Gulf of the Farallones, off San Francisco. Both changes came out of concern raised by increased blue whale sightings near areas where an upwelling in deep sea currents dishes up dense schools of krill, the primary food source of blue whales.

The process took years, and any new dialogue about further shifts is expected to take awhile, DeAngelis said.

The shipping industry, which has supported additional research on whale populations and behavior, has been somewhat wary of new regulation of shipping lanes.

“We’re looking to improve the science, and get the best handle we can on what the abundance, distribution, and behavior of these animals are so we can develop the best management strategy,” said T.L. Garrett, vice president of the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association, a trade group that represents ocean carriers. “But it needs to be recognized by all parties. We don’t have adequate data to make those kinds of management decisions yet.”

Garrett said he was not surprised by the report’s findings that whales and ships intersect at certain times, given what is known about the species’ wide patterns of movement. The association and the industry support efforts to develop real-time tracking of ships and whales, as is done for the right whale on the Atlantic Coast.

Garrett cautioned, however, that changes to shipping lanes could have unintended consequences for shipping and other marine life.

DeAngelis agreed. “You wouldn’t want to put something in place that would be beneficial to the blue whales but then might be detrimental to humpback whales or fin whales_or ocean users,” she said.

Researchers, regulators, shippers, and other interested parties are planning to meet in the fall to discuss the latest data, DeAngelis and Irvine said.

Photo via WikiCommons

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Climate Scientists Have A Beef With Beef

By Geoffrey Mohan, Los Angeles Times

If you want to slow climate change, white meat may be the right meat, according to two studies that tally the environmental effect of the beef industry.

Raising cattle in the United States requires 28 times as much land and 11 times as much irrigation water, and pumps at least five times as much planet-warming gases into Earth’s atmosphere than producing the equivalent calories of dairy products, poultry, pork, or eggs, according to a study published online Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

And from 1961 to 2010, worldwide emissions of planet-warming gases from livestock increased 51 percent, with the bulk of the increases coming from developing nations that are rapidly adopting the U.S. model of meat consumption, according to another study published Monday in the journal Climatic Change.

“For people, the obvious answer is: whenever possible, replace beef with something else,” said Gidon Eshel, a geophysicist at Bard College and lead author of the study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “If you really need it to be from animal sources, that’s still OK. You can still have bacon and eggs and whatever you want. As long as it’s not beef, you have always made a significant step forward, because beef is so much more intensive than the rest.”

The beef industry, not surprisingly, is not impressed.

“The PNAS study represents a gross over-simplification of the complex systems that make up the beef value chain, a point which the authors acknowledge,” Kim Stackhouse-Lawson, director of sustainability research for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Assn., said in a statement. “The fact is the U.S. beef industry produces beef with lower greenhouse gas emissions than any other country.”

Indeed, emissions from developed countries, such as the United States, topped out in 1970 and have decreased 23 percent, according to the study published in Climatic Change. But emissions more than doubled in developing countries, largely the result of domestic consumption, said Ken Caldeira, a Carnegie Institution ecologist and co-author of the study, which estimated production of methane and nitrous oxide by 11 livestock populatons in 237 countries.

Beef cattle produced more than half the emissions, followed by dairy cattle (17 percent), sheep (9 percent), buffalo (7 percent), pigs (5 percent), and goats (4 percent), according to the Climate Change study. The largest increases came in Congo, the Central African Republic, and Oman, the study found.

“More and more of the developing world is adopting the bad habits of the developed world,” Caldeira said.

Caldeira said his study amounts to a broad “rule of thumb” estimate using rough emission factors developed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. But its conclusions parallel those of several other studies, according to the report.

The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences study took a narrower but deeper look at the U.S. industrialized food chain and considered more factors, including the effects of grazing, raising feed crops, and the use of irrigation water.

But the study does not claim to evaluate every factor that goes into producing meat. Several factors that vary widely introduce uncertainty into the measures, the authors acknowledge. Among them are wide ranges in how much feed is required by each animal per pound of weight gain, and the fraction of pasture in beef and dairy diets, which vary by geography and technological practices.

Eshel said the study should guide not just consumer choice but also government policies, such as grazing fees on public land.

“It comes to the normal question that almost all environmental questions come to, and that is the tragedy of the commons — as long as things that belong to all of us are free, we are not going to use them very judiciously and parsimoniously,” Eshel said. “We’re going to use them poorly and wastefully, as we have been.”

Photo: roboppy via Flickr

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NASA Scrubs Launch Of Global Warming Satellite

By Geoffrey Mohan, Los Angeles Times

NASA scrubbed the launch of a Delta II rocket Tuesday, 46 seconds before it was to carry the agency’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 satellite into orbit.

The space agency blamed a failure of the water suppression system of the liftoff pad at Vandenberg Air Force Station.

The launch has been tentatively rescheduled for Wednesday.

Five years ago, the first version of the satellite was destroyed after it failed to separate from its launch vehicle, an Orbital Taurus XL rocket, and burned up as it re-entered Earth’s atmosphere. The cost of that mission was $209 million, according to a NASA investigation.

The $465 million replacement set to launch Wednesday would measure and map carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to provide scientists with a better understanding of how Earth’s oceans, soils and forests absorb CO2, and whether that ability is changing, according to the space agency.

The satellite’s nickname, OCO, comes from the scientific annotation for a carbon dioxode molecule — two oxygen atoms flanking a carbon atom in linear fashion.

Photo: Luke Bryant via Flickr

Giant Virus Revived From Deep Freeze In Siberian Tundra

By Geoffrey Mohan, Los Angeles Times

A 30,000-year-old giant virus has been revived from the frozen Siberian tundra, sparking concern that increased mining and oil drilling in rapidly warming northern latitudes could disturb dormant microbial life that could one day prove harmful to man.

The latest find, described online Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, appears to belong to a new family of mega-viruses that infect only amoeba. But its revival in a laboratory stands as “a proof of principle that we could eventually resurrect active infectious viruses from different periods,” said the study’s lead author, microbiologist Jean-Michel Claverie of Aix-Marseille University in France.

“We know that those non-dangerous viruses are alive there, which probably is telling us that the dangerous kind that may infect humans and animals — that we think were eradicated from the surface of Earth — are actually still present and eventually viable, in the ground,” Claverie said.

With climate change making northern reaches more accessible, the chance of disturbing dormant human pathogens increases, the researchers concluded. Average surface temperatures in the area that contained the virus have increased more steeply than in more temperate latitudes, the researchers noted.

“People will go there; they will settle there, and they will start mining and drilling,” Claverie said. “Human activities are going to perturb layers that have been dormant for 3 million years and may contain viruses.”

Claverie’s co-author, Chantal Abergel, nonetheless cautioned that their finding is limited to one innocuous virus infecting an amoeba. “We cannot definitely say that there are some human pathogens in there,” she said.

They will re-examine the drill core samples, Abergel said, to “find out if there is anything there that is dangerous to humans and animals.”

Claverie’s laboratory was behind the discovery, in Chile, more than a decade ago, of the first giant DNA virus, dubbed Mimivirus. They next identified a far larger virus of an entirely different family in 2011, dubbing it Pandoravirus salinus, in homage to the mythical Pandora’s box that first unleashed evil on the world.

This time, they used an amoeba commonly found in soil and water as bait to draw out a virus from a Siberian permafrost core that had been dated to 30,000 years ago.

The finding described Monday looked like another Pandora, except it was 50 percent larger.

“Giant” in virology is still pretty tiny. A virus of one micron in size, or a thousandth of a millimeter, is considered huge. That’s big enough to be seen with a normal light microscope. The human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, measures one tenth of a micron.

The genome of the newly described virus, however, contained only about a quarter of the number of paired DNA building blocks as Pandora, and the prevailing type of these base pairs was similar to the kind that dominate the Mimivirus genome.

Researchers kept with the ominous mythological theme and dubbed their find Pithovirus, from the Greek pithos, the type of amphora, or jar, that Pandora opened (it was not a box, after all).

Pithovirus still has an unusually large genome — 600,000 base pairs, which the researchers predict would include genes that code 467 proteins. The genome of Pandora virus contains more than 2.8 million base pairs and about 2,500 coding genes. For comparison: the tiny HIV retrovirus has 9,749 base pairs and nine coding genes; the virus that causes mononucleosis has about 172,000 base pairs and about 80 genes.

The prospect of finding additional viruses that prove to be viable in a host remains uncertain. Microbiologist Brent C. Christner, of Louisiana State University, who has done similar work on frozen microbes but was not involved in the study, cautioned that DNA is easily damaged and that viruses cannot replicate or mutate without a host. “They have no source of energy,” he said. “They have to hijack the mechanisms of the host cell.”

Nonetheless, the study further challenges the notion that viruses can be fully eradicated, Christner said. The genome described in the study, he noted, encodes 125 proteins involved in transcription, DNA repair and replication.

The researchers plan to re-examine large viruses that have been mistaken for bacteria in the past — one such specimen, found in 2008, had infected an amoeba living in a 17-year-old’s contact lens solution.

Photo: laurabillings via Flickr

Can A Genetic Model Predict Next Year’s Flu Strain?

By Geoffrey Mohan, Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES — The seasonal flu has met its enemy, and it’s calculus.

A theoretical physicist and computational biologist analyzed the genetic code of thousands of strains of Influenza A that occurred over a 44-year period to create a model that accurately predicts which strain will prevail in the pitched evolutionary battle between human antibodies and the rapidly mutating virus.

Their method proved more accurate for selecting an appropriate vaccine than the current method used by public health officials, according to a report published online Wednesday in the journal Nature.

The researchers, from the University of Cologne in Germany and Columbia University, examined Influenza A/H3N2, a seasonal strain that causes thousands of deaths annually. They focused on the H part — short for hemagglutinin, a spike-shaped protein that seeks out sugars in human cells and binds to them, allowing the virus to inject its deadly code.

Human antibodies — naturally launched or gigged into action by vaccines — engage in a constant arms race with this wildly mutating protein, making flu vaccination season something of an educated guessing game. World health officials have been reasonably accurate in identifying which resistant strains are emerging as a new threat. But their method has a lot of uncertainty. A study in 2010, in fact, called several popular diagnostic methods “questionable.”

Inaccuracy also is at the heart of the survival for a virus, which shuffles its code enough to create variations that don’t show up on the radar of the human immune system.

“This is a really fast-evolving virus,” said study co-author Marta Luksza, a computational biologist at Columbia University. “Individual strains are very short-lived. Very, very rarely are there two identical strains. They mutate, they infect another individual. But they do share common mutations still.”

Luksza and co-author Michael Laessig estimated the frequency of these mutations in the viral RNA and factored in such variables as infection rates to come up with a model predicting a strain’s evolutionary fitness.

Since the researchers already knew the outcome of the evolutionary arms race from the record of flu strains from 1968 to 2012, they tested whether their model would have identified the fittest strains. It predicted the rise of the correct lineage in 93 percent of cases.

Perhaps more importantly, the model chose a more genetically matched strain than the one deployed as a vaccine.

Luksza cautioned that the study focused on one type of influenza. When they tested the model against an extinct H1N1 strain, results were less precise.

“In principle, there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be applicable to other strains,” Luksza said. But there may be complicating factors involved in the evolution of other strains that would have to be incorporated into the model, she added.

“I think our model could be used as guidance for the existing way of choosing vaccines,” Luksza said.

Photo: Mcfarlandmo via Flickr

Drug Reverses Autism Brain Activity In Mice, Study Shows

By Geoffrey Mohan, Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES—A generic blood pressure drug could prevent hyperactive brain cell firing associated with early stages of autism spectrum disorder, according to a new study.

Injecting pregnant mice with Bumetanide, a diuretic, appears to correct a developmental switch flipped during childbirth that reverses the firing characteristics of neurons in newborns, according to a study published online this week in the journal Science.

Bumetanide mimics the effects of oxytocin, a hormone released during labor that helps protect newborns from the stresses and complications of birth, the study found. That surge of oxytocin changes the way a neurotransmitter regulates neurons—it no longer encourages the firing of neurons and becomes a kind of electrochemical brake in the adult brains.

Overly excited brain circuits are strongly linked with autism spectrum disorder, a disease that strikes an estimated 1 of every 88 children, causing them to have restricted interests, and impaired communication and social skills.

The drug was tested for only two types of autism that constitute a minority of cases of the perplexing disorder: a genetic mutation that causes Fragile X Syndrome, and autism sparked by prenatal exposure to the anticonvulsive valproic acid.

Researchers warned that further testing will be needed to determine both the efficacy of the drug in children and its potential for causing side effects. And because there is no way to diagnose autism risks to fetuses, it remains unlikely that such a therapy would be administered prenatally, as a prevention of autism.

“I’m not convinced that the hope is one day to be able to treat during pregnancy,” said neurologist Yehezkel Ben-Ari, of the French Institute of Health and Medical Research, the lead author of the study, published Thursday. “The hope is after birth, provided we have a good diagnosis.”

Early clinical trials in Europe have shown that the drug diminished autism symptoms among 60 children age 3-11. Further trials are under way, Ben-Ari said.

Researchers have long suspected the role of gamma aminobutyric acid, or GABA, but have not understood the intricacies of the “GABA switch” that is apparently thrown at birth, nor how it might be altered.

They focused on a kind of biochemical trade balance of chloride ions in neurons of the hippocampus. A surplus inside fetal neurons gradually decreases as a chloride exporter comes to dominate the equation, and oxytocin appears to mediate this change, according to the study.

“During delivery, you have important reactions that, if they fail, you have a higher likelihood of autism,” Ben-Ari said. “The delivery has a major priming effect on what is going to happen subsequently.”

But that priming doesn’t happen in mice with the Fragile X mutation or those exposed to valproic acid in utero, the researchers found. Chloride export was reduced in both. And GABA continued to excite the neurons of the newborns of both type rats, rather than inhibit them. This led to more active circuits, according to the study.

Bumetanide administered to pregnant mice changed the aberrant chloride profile in the neurons of mice offspring, which also exhibited fewer autism-like characteristics in their vocalizations, according to the study.

Andrew Zimmerman, a pediatric neurologist at the Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester, said the findings were encouraging.

“They’ve further defined this GABA switch that we’ve suspected is present in normal brain development but is probably abnormal in autism brain development,” Zimmerman said. “This is direct confirmation, as close as you can get in animals.”

Zimmerman noted that 80 percent of autism cases arise from unknown causes unrelated to Fragile X syndrome or exposure to valproic acid. Still, he added, the fact that two widely different causes of autism showed a chloride imbalance suggests that this may be a common denominator in other cases.

 AFP Photo/Ho

Remembrance Or Revision? Brain Study Shows Memory Misleads

By Geoffrey Mohan, Los Angeles Times

Memory can be altered by new experience, and isn’t nearly as accurate as courtroom testimony might have us believe, a new study suggests.

The results suggest a cheeky answer to the question posed by comedian Richard Pryor: “Who you gonna believe: me, or your lyin’ eyes?”

Turns out, Pryor was onto something. The brain behind our eyes can distort reality or verify it, based on subsequent experience. And somewhat paradoxically, the same area of the brain appears to be strongly involved in both activities, according to a study published online Tuesday in the Journal of Neuroscience.

Northwestern University cognitive neuroscientist Donna J. Bridge was testing how memory is either consolidated or altered, by giving 17 subjects a deceptively simple task. They studied the location of dozens of objects briefly flashed at varied locations on a standard computer screen, then were asked to recall the object’s original location on a new screen with a different background.

When subjects were told to use a mouse to drag the re-presented object from the center of the new screen to the place where they recalled it had been located, 16 of 17 got it wrong, by an average of about 3 inches.

When the same subjects then were given three choices — the original location, the wrong guess and a neutral spot between them — they almost unfailingly dragged the object to the incorrectly recalled location, regardless of the background screen. Their new memory was false.

But it gets trickier still. When subjects were instead told to drag the object from center screen to a pre-selected spot on the new background, then were asked to move it from a central spot to where they recalled seeing it originally, they got the original position right at an uncanny rate. (They were not told the pre-selected spot was wrong, and its misplacement distance roughly matched that of errors measured in the previous trials.)

Faced with the three position choices, these same subjects also matched the correct original position, regardless of screen background.

All the while, measures of brain activity showed that the same area of the hippocampus was highly active both for maintaining the “correct” memory and confirming a newly associated “false” memory.

“That overlapping brain activity was pretty shocking to us,” said Bridge, a postdoctoral student at the university’s Feinberg School of Medicine. “The idea is that whatever is most important to you right now, the hippocampus is responsible to either maintain a stable representation or change it.”

The results seem to contradict common notions that we are prone to altering accounts of the past when prompted with false information. On the contrary, the hippocampus’ well-documented ability to sort between present reality and a stored memory held up.

Yet a similar calculation could underlie the error. The new, but wrong, position became associated with the new background, and when the background changed, the hippocampus seemed to sort through a false database.

There could be good reason for our brains to act this way, Bridge said. Life requires us to update aspects of our memory on a constant basis. In some sense, the benefits of that function outweigh the pitfalls.

“It seems like a basic function of memory is that it is built to change,” Bridge said. “It’s built to adapt to what is currently important to us.”

You might think of it this way: An evolving hominid who could regularly update where tigers lurked or food could be found would have a higher chance of surviving to pass on genes than one who stubbornly insisted they were found in only one spot.

On a more modern level, Bridge offered, we find it hard to remember how someone familiar looked in the past, and tend to project current appearance onto memories. That would clarify our shock at how “different” the person looks in an old wedding photo, for example.

“I think that we just don’t notice we do this all the time,” Bridge said. “It’s a subtle practice. We think it’s adaptive. As you encounter new situations, new environments, it’s good to use your past to inform the future and present; sometimes that means updating your past.”

The results could have implications for those struggling with the associations of traumatic memories, since many therapies focus on changing context. But they also could add reasonable doubt to eyewitness testimony, particularly in circumstances where the witness could be susceptible to updating.

Perhaps Richard Pryor was wise, then: With time and opportunity, he counted on “updating” the memory of that indiscretion you just saw.

AFP Photo/Ho