Science Briefs

December 29, 2013 

Genetic clue to fighting new flu strain

Researchers at Australia’s University of Melbourne have discovered a genetic marker that can accurately predict which patients will experience more severe disease in a new strain of influenza (H7N9) currently found in China.

In the Journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, senior author Katherine Kedzierska said that being able to predict which patients will be more susceptible to the emerging influenza strain will allow clinicians to better manage an early intervention strategy.

“By using genetic markers to blood and lung samples, we have discovered that there are certain indicators that signal increased susceptibility to this influenza. Higher than normal levels of cytokines, driven by a genetic variant of a protein called IFITM3, tells us that the severe disease is likely,” she said. newsroom.melbourne.edu

Not all plants can handle climate change

Using the largest dated evolutionary tree of flowering plants ever assembled, a new study suggests how plants developed traits to withstand low temperatures, with implications that human-induced climate change may pose a bigger threat than initially thought to plants and global agriculture.

The study in the journal Nature, co-authored by University of Florida scientists, shows many angiosperms – flowering plants – evolved mechanisms to cope with freezing temperatures as they radiated into nearly every climate during prehistoric times. Researchers found the plants likely acquired many of these adaptive traits prior to their movement into colder regions. The study also suggests some modern angiosperms, including most flowering plants, trees and agricultural crops, may not have the traits needed to rapidly respond to human-induced climate change, said study co-author Pam Soltis.

“Only some plants were able to make the adjustments to survive in cold climates,” said Soltis, a geneticist. “In fact, some had traits used for other purposes that they co-opted for cold tolerance. The results have implications for plant response to climate change – some plant lineages, including many crops, will not have the underlying genetic attributes that will allow for rapid responses to climate change.” ufl.edu

Heat makes deep quakes spread

Nearly 25 percent of earthquakes occur more than 50 kilometers below the Earth’s surface, when one tectonic plate slides below another, in a region called the lithosphere.

But limited seismic data, and difficulty in reproducing these quakes in the laboratory, have combined to prevent researchers from pinpointing the cause of intermediate and deep earthquakes.

Now a team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford University has identified a mechanism that helps these deeper quakes spread. By analyzing seismic data from a region in Colombia with a high concentration of intermediate-depth earthquakes, the researchers identified a “runaway process” in which the sliding of rocks at great depths causes surrounding temperatures to spike. This influx of heat, in turn, encourages more sliding – a feedback mechanism that propagates through the lithosphere, generating an earthquake.

Results of the study were published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters. web.mit.edu

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