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February 17, 2015

In Brief

Ring system larger, heavier than Saturn’s

rings surround a planet
An artist’s conception of the extrasolar ring system circling the young giant planet or brown dwarf J1407b. The rings are shown eclipsing the young sun-like star J1407, as they would have appeared in early 2007.

Eric Mamajek, professor of physics and astronomy at Rochester, and a coauthor Matthew Kenworthy from the Leiden Observatory, the Netherlands, have discovered that a ring system they see eclipse the very young sun-like star J1407 is of enormous proportions, much larger and heavier than the ring system of Saturn. The ring system–the first of its kind to be found outside our solar system–was discovered in 2012 by a team led by Mamajek.

A new analysis of the data, led by Kenworthy, shows that the ring system consists of over 30 rings, each of them tens of millions of kilometers in diameter. Furthermore, they found gaps in the rings, which indicate that satellites (“exomoons”) may have formed. The result has been accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal.

“This planet is much larger than Jupiter or Saturn, and its ring system is roughly 200 times larger than Saturn’s rings are today,” Mamajek says. “You could think of it as kind of a super Saturn.”

The astronomers analyzed data from the SuperWASP project—a survey that is designed to detect gas giants that move in front of their parent star. In 2012, Mamajek and colleagues at Rochester reported the discovery of the young star J1407 and the unusual eclipses, and proposed that they were caused by a moon-forming disk around a young giant planet or brown dwarf.

In a more recent study led by Kenworthy, adaptive optics and Doppler spectroscopy were used to estimate the mass of the ringed object. The conclusions was that the companion is likely to be a giant planet—not yet seen—with a gigantic ring system responsible for the repeated dimming of J1407’s light.

The light curve tells astronomers that the diameter of the ring system is nearly 120 million kilometers, more than two hundred times as large as the rings of Saturn. The ring system likely contains roughly an Earth’s worth of mass in light-obscuring dust particles

E-cigarette vapors trigger lung cell stress

Do electronic cigarettes help people quit smoking? As the debate continues on that point, a new Medical Center study suggests that e-cigarettes are likely a toxic replacement for tobacco products.

Emissions from e-cigarette aerosols and flavorings damage lung cells by creating harmful free radicals and inflammation in lung tissue, according to the study published in the journal PLOS ONE. Irfan Rahman, professor of environmental medicine at the School of Medicine and Dentistry, led the research, which adds to a growing body of scientific data that points to dangers of e-cigarettes and vaping.

The investigation suggests the harm begins when the e-cigarette’s heating element is activated. The heating element is designed to turn a liquid solution (known as an e-liquid or “juice”) into an aerosol that mimics cigarette smoke. The inhaled vapors contain heavy metals and other possible carcinogens in the form of nanoparticles—tiny particulate matter that can reach farther into lung tissue, cell systems, and the blood stream.

Rahman’s study also shows that some flavored e-juices (particularly cinnamon) create more stress and toxicity on lung tissue. Researchers observed in the laboratory that human lung cells exposed to e-cigarette aerosols released various inflammation biomarkers. Mice exposed to e-cigarettes with classic tobacco flavoring also demonstrated signs of pulmonary inflammation.

“Several leading medical groups, organizations, and scientists are concerned about the lack of restrictions and regulations for e-cigarettes,” Rahman said. “Our research affirms that e-cigarettes may pose significant health risks and should be investigated further. It seems that every day a new e-cigarette product is launched without knowing the harmful health effects of these products.”

Rahman’s laboratory also recently reported in the journal Environmental Pollution that toxic metals and oxidants from e-cigarettes raise safety concerns as well as potential pollution hazards from second-hand exposures and disposal of e-cigarette waste. Another recent study connected e-cigarette vapors to a higher risk of respiratory infections in young people.


Extra protein gives naked mole rats more power to stop cancer

A protein newly found in the naked mole rat may help explain the rodent’s unique ability to ward off cancer.

The protein is associated with a cluster of genes (called a locus) that is also found in humans and mice. It’s the job of that locus to encode—or carry the genetic instructions for synthesizing—several cancer-fighting proteins. Vera Gorbunova, professor of biology, says the locus found in naked mole rats encodes a total of four cancer-fighting proteins, while the human and mouse version encodes only three proteins.

The findings by Gorbunova, Andrei Seluanov, assistant professor of biology, and their research team have been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Naked mole rats are small, hairless, subterranean rodents that have never been known to get cancer despite having a 30-year lifespan.

It had already been known that the genes in question—referred to as Ink4 gene locus—synthesize the same three cancer-suppressing proteins, all of which stop cells from dividing when the cells are stressed or mutated. Student researcher Jorge Azpurua wanted to clone one of the proteins of the naked mole rat for a separate experiment and noticed something unexpected: the presence of a fourth protein, which was the result of two of the proteins being fused together. The fourth protein was as good or even better than the two proteins at stopping cells from dividing.

“We named this novel product pALTINK4a/b,” says Gorbunova, “and we believe it may contribute to the longevity of the naked mole rat, including its ability to prevent tumors from developing.”


App would monitor mental health through ‘selfie’ videos, social media

Rochester researchers have developed an innovative approach to turn any computer or smartphone with a camera into a personal mental-health monitoring device.

In a paper presented at the American Association for Artificial Intelligence conference in Austin, Texas, Jiebo Luo, associate professor of computer science, and his colleagues describe a computer program that can analyze “selfie” videos recorded by a webcam as the person engages with social media.

Apps to monitor people’s health are widely used, from monitoring the spread of the flu to providing guidance on nutrition and managing mental health issues. Luo says that his team’s approach is to “quietly observe your behavior” while you use the computer or phone as usual. He adds that their program is “unobtrusive; it does not require the user to explicitly state what he or she is feeling, input any extra information, or wear any special gear.” For example, the team was able to measure a user’s heart rate simply by monitoring very small, subtle changes in the user’s forehead color.

The researchers were able to analyze the video data to extract a number of “clues,” such as heart rate, blinking rate, eye pupil radius, and head movement rate. At the same time, the program also analyzed both what the users posted on Twitter, what they read, how fast they scrolled, their keystroke rate, and their mouse click rate.

Not every input is treated equally though: what a user tweets, for example, is given more weight than what the user reads because it is a direct expression of what that user is thinking and feeling.

The program considers emotions as positive, neutral or negative. Luo says that he hopes to add extra sensitivity to the program by teaching it to further define a negative emotion as, for example, sadness or anger. Right now, it’s a demo program they have created and no “app” exists, but they have plans to create an app that would let users be more aware of their emotional fluctuations and make adjustments themselves.

Study: Porches an overlooked lead hazard

A new study in the journal Environmental Research indicates that porches in older homes can be a significant source of lead dust and that housing regulations—which have been instrumental in lowering rates of lead poisoning in recent years—need to be adapted to meet this threat to children’s health.

“This study shows that porches are an important potential source of lead exposure for children,” says Katrina Korfmacher, director of the Community Outreach and Engagement Core of the Medical Center’s Environmental Health Sciences Center and a coauthor of the study. “It is becoming clear that porch dust lead can be effectively reduced through repairs, cleaning, and maintenance.”

Lead is a neurotoxin and has significant health, learning, and behavioral effects, even at levels previously thought to be safe. Some local communities, including Rochester, have adopted ordinances that require owners and landlords to take steps to ensure that the interiors of rental properties are “lead safe.” However, in many instances these requirements stop at the front door and do not cover exterior spaces and structures such as porches. No communities have standards limiting the amount of lead in dust on porches, because there is no federal standard and there has been limited evidence that mitigating lead hazards in these instances is feasible.

Porches hold the potential to be a source of lead hazards for young children, either from lead dust being tracked or blown into the house or through direct exposure.

The new study was a partnership between the National Center for Healthy Housing (NCHH), the Medical Center, the City of Rochester, and Action for a Better Community, a Rochester-based nonprofit organization.


Generating möbius strips of light

A collaboration between researchers from Canada, Europe, and the United States has experimentally produced Möbius strips from the polarization of light, confirming a theoretical prediction that it is possible for light’s electromagnetic field to assume the peculiar shape.

Möbius strips are easy to create. Take a strip of paper, twist it once and join up the ends. That’s it, you have created a Möbius strip: a three dimensional structure that has only one side. But finding Möbius strips occurring naturally is another issue.

“This is one of the very few known examples of a Möbius structure appearing in nature,” says Robert Boyd, professor of optics and physics at Rochester and the Canada Excellence Research Chair in Quantum Nonlinear Optics at the University of Ottawa. Boyd is one of the senior authors of the paper describing the research, which was published online by Science.

Demonstrating that a Möbius strip can be made of polarization states of light is interesting not only for improving the fundamental understanding of optical polarization but also because it could be used to generate complex structures at micro and nanoscales.


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