The same bizarre worm-like clams that create holes in driftwood may be a game-changes for fuel supplies in America, according to a joint research team that has just published their finding that shipworms have a totally unique digestive system–hitherto unknown–and possess the ability to create enzymes that break plant matter down into sugar and other fuel products.
“You don’t hear about the discovery of new digestive strategies very often,” said Dr Dan Distel, Director at the Ocean Genome Legacy Center of New England Biolabs Marine Science Center, Northeastern University, and a lead researcher on the study. “It just doesn’t happen.”
Shipworms aren’t worms–they’re clams that look like worms, and they burrow holes through wood using enzymes made by bacteria. They use the broken down wood matter as nutrition, similar to termites.
How shipworms break down wood is the matter of the teams recent, groundbreaking discovery: the bacteria doesn’t come from shipworms’ guts.
The enzymes that break down wood are made by bacteria that lives inside special cells in the clam’s gills, and are transported to the gut.
No other animal in the world uses bacteria produced outside its digestive system, Distel said. No other intracellular bacterium produces enzymes that function outside of the host.
“This is really unusual in that the bacteria that produce the enzymes are located in an organ outside the digestive system and in fact appear to be intracellula,” Distel told The Speaker. “The vast majority of animals use extracellular bacteria in the gut to help them digest. The lumen of the gut, if you think about it, is really part of the outside of the animal. There are some examples of animals ingesting enzymes produced by bacteria or fungi in their food, but I have not heard of another animal that has a special organ outside of the gut designed to house enzyme-producing bacteria.”
Because the team could find around 45 genes inside the guts of the shipworms that matched the 1000 genes found in the gills, the team believes they can find the enzymes that could be used in commercial biofuel production.
“This was a key finding,” Distel said, “because we can identify the small number of enzymes that are actually involved in breaking down wood in gut, and that gives us a list of candidates that you can start to look at to find commercially-viable enzymes.”
The enzymes convert plant biomass–cellulose–into sugar, and sugar can be used to make ethanol and other biofuels.
Biofuel production is already a matter of US government policy. By 2022 36 billion gallons of cellulosic biofuel should be produced in the country, according to a government mandate, and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) expects that one-third of US transportation fuel could be met with cellulosic biomass.
The main obstacle to commercial success in cellulosic ethanol is finding the right enzymes to convert plant matter into sugar.
Distel told us that although it would be an overstatement to say that they had found the key to unlocking commerce in cellulosic ethanol, they had identified a new source of enzymes with potential commercial value.
Next for the research team is to investigate how shipworms’ digestive enzymes move from gills to gut, and to characterize each of the proteins the team found and evaluate their potential applications.
The research was a large cooperative effort undertaken with the help of colleagues at the Joint Genome Institute (DOE), New England Biolabs, and other collaborating institutions.
In addition to collaborative help, advances in science were also credited by Distel in the research.
“It has been known that bacteria are present in the gills since the 1970’s and it has been suspected for some time that they contribute to wood digestion by the host,” Distel told us, “but this is the first demonstration. I have been working on these critters for many years, but recently advances in genomics and proteomics have given us the tools to answer many questions that were previously tough to address. ”
Their research paper, “Gill bacteria enable a novel digestive strategy in a wood-feeding mollusk,” was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Monday afternoon, and was authored by Roberta M. O’Connora of Tufts Medical Center, Jennifer M. Fung at Bolt Threads biotech company, Koty H. Sharp at Eckerd College, Jack S. Bennerd, Colleen McClungd, Shelley Cushing, Elizabeth R. Lamkin, Alexey I. Fomenkov, Bernard Henrissat, Yuri Y. Londer, Matthew B. Scholz, Janos Posfai, Stephanie Malfatt, Susannah G. Tringe, Tanja Woyke, Rex R. Malmstromh, Devin Coleman-Derrh, Marvin A. Altamia, Sandra Dedrick, Stefan T. Kaluziak, Margo G. Haygood, and Daniel L. Distel.
By Dan Jackson
Photos: Dan Distel, Korabel Cherv
When political parties reverse their policy stance, their supporters immediately switch their opinions too
At least a significant portion of their supporters, according to U of Aarhus researchers.
When two competing political parties in Denmark reversed their policy stance on an issue — suddenly they both supported reducing unemployment benefits — their voters immediately moved their opinions by around 15% into line with their party.
The same thing happened when one of these parties shifted from opposing to supporting ending Denmark’s early retirement.
The researchers were studying how public opinion is formed. Their recent paper sheds light on how much influence political parties have over their supporters, according to the researchers, who surveyed their panel of subjects in five successive waves between 2010 and 2011. They studied the same group of party supporters before, during and after a policy reversal.
“We can see that [the] welfare programs were actually quite popular … and many of the voters of the center-right party were in favor of these welfare programs,” commented one of the researchers, Rune Slothuus. “Nevertheless, we can see that they reversed their opinion from supporting these welfare programs to opposing these welfare programs.”
“I was surprised to see the parties appeared this powerful in shaping opinions,” Slothuus said. “Our findings suggest that partisan leaders can indeed lead citizens’ opinions in the real world, even in situations where the stakes are real and the economic consequences tangible.”
The researchers pondered Western democracy in light of their findings: “If citizens just blindly follow their party without thinking much about it, that should lead to some concern about the mechanisms in our democracy. Because how can partisan elites represent citizens’ views if the views of citizens are shaped by the very same elites who are supposed to represent them?”
Source: How Political Parties Shape Public Opinion in the Real World. Rune Slothuus and Martin Bisgaard. First published: 04 November 2020 https://doi.org/10.1111/ajps.12550
The brain listens for things it is trying to predict
The brain interprets sounds as they contrast with its expectations; it recognizes patterns of sounds faster when they’re in line with what it is predicting it will hear, but it only encodes sounds when they contrast with expectations, according to Technische U researchers.
The researchers showed this by monitoring the two principal nuclei of the subcortical pathway responsible for auditory processing: the inferior colliculus and the medial geniculate body, as their subjects listened to patterns of sounds which the researches modified so that sometimes they would hear an expected sound pattern, and other times something unexpected.
Source: Alejandro Tabas, Glad Mihai, Stefan Kiebel, Robert Trampel, Katharina von Kriegstein. Abstract rules drive adaptation in the subcortical sensory pathway. eLife, 2020; 9 DOI: 10.7554/eLife.64501
We have a particular way of understanding a room
When several research subjects were instructed to explore an empty room, and when they were instead seated in a chair and watched someone else explore the room, their brain waves followed a certain pattern, as recorded by a backpack hooked up to record their brain waves, eye movements, and paths. It didn’t matter if they were walking or watching someone else, according to UC researchers led by Dr Matthias Stangl.
The researchers also tested what happened when subjects searched for a hidden spot, or watched someone else do so, and found that brain waves flowed more strongly when they had a goal and hunted for something.
Source: Matthias Stangl, Uros Topalovic, Cory S. Inman, Sonja Hiller, Diane Villaroman, Zahra M. Aghajan, Leonardo Christov-Moore, Nicholas R. Hasulak, Vikram R. Rao, Casey H. Halpern, Dawn Eliashiv, Itzhak Fried, Nanthia Suthana. Boundary-anchored neural mechanisms of location-encoding for self and others. Nature, 2020; DOI: 10.1038/s41586-020-03073-y
Extroverts and introverts use different vocabularies
Extroverts use ‘positive emotion’ and ‘social process’ words more often than introverts, according to new research conducted at Nanyang Technological U.
‘Love,’ ‘happy,’ and ‘blessed’ indicate pleasant emotions, and ‘beautiful’ and ‘nice’ indicate positivity or optimism, and are among the words found to be used more often by extroverts. So too are ‘meet,’ ‘share,’ and ‘talk,’ which are about socializing. Extroverts use personal pronouns — except ‘I’ — more too, another indication of sociability.
The correlation, however, was small, and the researchers think that stronger linguistic indicators need to be found to achieve their general goal, which is improving machine learning approaches to targeting consumer marketing.
Source: Jiayu Chen, Lin Qiu, Moon-Ho Ringo Ho. A meta-analysis of linguistic markers of extraversion: Positive emotion and social process words. Journal of Research in Personality, 2020; 89: 104035 DOI: 10.1016/j.jrp.2020.104035
WhatsApp is changing today - Users must give the app permission to send their private data to Facebook or lose account
WhatsApp was bought by Facebook in 2014, but has thrived while promoting itself as a privacy-respecting messaging app that now has 1.5b monthly active users. This week, though, WhatApp sent out an update to users’ phones that they must ‘consent’ to a new policy or lose access.
Whatsapp will now share more of your data, including your IP address (your location) and phone number, your account registration information, your transaction data, and service-related data, interactions on WhatsApp, and other data collected based on your consent, with Facebook’s other companies. Facebook has been working towards more closely integrating Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram and Messenger.
Users who do not agree to ‘consent’ to the new policy will see their WhatsApp account become inaccessible until they do ‘consent.’ These accounts will remain dormant for 120 days after which they will be ‘deleted.’
The biggest change to the user policy, which many people ignored and clicked ‘agree’ to, thinking it was just another unimportant app update message, now reads,
‘We collect information about your activity on our Services, like service-related, diagnostic, and performance information. This includes information about your activity (including how you use our Services, your Services settings, how you interact with others using our Services (including when you interact with a business), and the time, frequency, and duration of your activities and interactions), log files, and diagnostic, crash, website, and performance logs and reports. This also includes information about when you registered to use our Services; the features you use like our messaging, calling, Status, groups (including group name, group picture, group description), payments or business features; profile photo, “about” information; whether you are online, when you last used our Services (your “last seen”); and when you last updated your “about” information.’
Notably, Elon Musk tweeted on the news, saying that WhatsApp users should switch to Signal, one of several popular privacy-focused messaging apps similar to WhatsApp.
The data sharing policy change doesn’t affect people in Europe due to GDPR data protection regulations.