Science & Technology

By Elof Axel Carlson

Elof Axel Carlson

When I first read a biography of Darwin as a teenager, I was attracted to his reputation of having “an enlarged curiosity.” It also described my own personality.  

I never got museum fatigue going through New York’s museums. They were free during the 1940s and my brother and I would enjoy many trips with our mother during the summer to visit them. 

It was fun to study paintings to see how artists differed in the way they drew facial features. It was fun to go through the fossils of dinosaurs and see how much their skeletons resembled those of birds. 

I could imagine being an unseen witness to the huge teeth and claws of meat-eating dinosaurs. I loved looking at gems in the mineral display gallery. I learned about New York City history by looking at the dioramas on the first floor of the American Museum of Natural History.

Curiosity is natural to children and they delight in discovering new facts. That curiosity is often stifled by parents who tire of an overload of questions. When a child becomes curious and discovers items parents do not want their children to know about, they often are told that “curiosity may kill a cat.”  

I often satisfied my curiosity at home reading in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, which my father bought on installment just before I was born. He argued that I could sleep in an open suitcase on the kitchen table and buying the encyclopedia was more important than the type of bedding an infant slept in. I bless him for that foresight.  

Random reading on rainy days in the encyclopedia filled me with facts about the universe. I read about the art of bonsai or miniaturized trees in Japanese gardens. I read about Egyptian mummies and learned under the topic Bubastis, that there was a city devoted to cats and their burial in ancient Egypt. The isolated facts over the years became a treasure trove of information. 

Curiosity is essential for science. It motivates adolescents and young adults to find careers in science and fields of scholarship. In antiquity, scholars like Aristotle or Pliny (both uncle and nephew) sought to amass all known knowledge and their works are a major source of what we know about Greek and Roman civilizations.  

William Bateson, who coined the term “genetics” in 1906 for my field, said, “Treasure your exceptions” because from them new fields may arise. How true that was for me when I found an unusual fly in an exercise in one of H. J. Muller’s classes as a graduate student. That unusual fly turned out to be a rare instance of two pieces of a gene being united in a new way. It led to my doctoral dissertation study.  

Today many scholarly tasks are done by computers. Wikipedia is now an essential starting tool to explore a topic and obtain several scholarly references to extend a search for knowledge. While the tools for scholars may change, the curiosity fueling scholarship cuts across all disciplines.

 Elof Axel Carlson is a distinguished teaching professor emeritus in the Department of Biochemistry and Cell Biology at Stony Brook University.

Maureen O’Leary wraps fossils during an expedition in Mali. Photo by Eric Roberts

By Daniel Dunaief

Mali is filled with challenges, from its scorching hot 125 degree temperatures, to its sudden rainstorms, to its dangers from militant and terrorist-sponsored groups.

The current environment in the landlocked country in West Africa makes it extraordinarily difficult to explore the past in a region that includes parts of the Sahara Desert, but that, at one point millions of years ago, was part of a waterway called the Trans-Saharan Seaway.

Maureen O’Leary, professor of anatomical sciences at the Renaissance School of Medicine at Stony Brook University, led three expeditions to Mali, in 1999, 2003 and 2008, collecting a wide array of fossils and geological samples from areas that transitioned from an inland seaway that was about 50 meters deep on average to its current condition as a desiccated desert.

Maureen O’Leary and Eric Roberts with Mali guards. Photo from Maureen O’Leary

On her third trip, O’Leary quickly left because she decided the trip was too dangerous for her and the scientific team. Rather than rue the lack of ongoing access to the region, however, O’Leary pulled together an international team of researchers from Australia, the United States and Mali to look more closely and categorize the information the research teams had already collected from the region.

“We made the most of a bad situation,” O’Leary said. “It is a silver lining, to some degree.”

Indeed, O’Leary and her collaborators put together a paper for the June 28 issue of the Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History that is over 170 pages and contains numerous images of fossils, as well as recreations of a compelling region during a period from 100 million to 50 million years ago. This time period coincided with one of the five great prehistoric extinction events, during the Cretaceous-Paleogene boundary.

O’Leary characterized some of the more exciting fossil finds from the region, which include the first reconstruction of ancient elephant relatives and large predators such as sharks, crocodiles and sea snakes.

The size of some of these creatures far exceeds their modern relatives. For example, O’Leary’s scientific colleagues estimate that a freshwater catfish was about 160 centimeters in length, which is four times the total size of a modern catfish. The larger catfish dovetails with similar observations the researchers had made about sea snakes in 2016 and 2017. They started to knit this trend into a preliminary hypothesis in which a phenomenon known as island gigantism may have played a role in selecting for these unusually large creatures.

“Species become bigger in these environments,” O’Leary said, suggesting that other scientists have made similar observations. “It’s not clear what causes that kind of selection.”

Above, some of the species that lived in and around the TransSaharan Seaway, including an extinct species of crocodile. Illustrated by Lucille Betti-Nash/ Department of Anatomical Sciences, Stony Brook University.

 

In addition to studying vertebrate and invertebrate fossils, scientists including Eric Roberts at James Cook University in Australia looked at the geology of the region. Roberts helped name and describe many of the formations in the area. This provides context for the lives of creatures who survived in an environment distinctly different from the modern milieu of the Sahara Desert.

Roberts, who is a part of the Sedimentary Geology & Paleontology Research Group that has nicknamed themselves Gravelmonkeys, explained that his initial efforts in Mali came from the fieldwork over a course of weeks when he explored the rock sequences and took copious notes on them.

He suggested that the region still represents a geoscience frontier, in part because it is so difficult to get to, takes serious logistics to do fieldwork and is hard to maintain research.“Over many years, I have worked with collaborators on the project to analyze the samples in many different ways and especially to compare our notes and analytical results with descriptions of rocks and geological formations in other parts of the Sahara and further afield in Africa to understand how they are different and how they correlate,” he said.

O’Leary suggested that the paper provides some context for climate and sea level changes that can and have occurred. During the period she studied, the Earth was considerably warmer, with over 40 percent of today’s exposed land covered by water. Sea levels were about 300 meters higher than current levels, although the Earth wasn’t home to billions of humans yet or to many of the modern day species that share the planet’s resources.

Robert Voss, the editor-in-chief of the series at the American Museum of Natural History, praised the work for its breadth. “This was an unusually large and multidisciplinary author team, as appropriate for the broad scope of the report,” he explained .

“Seldom is such a large geographic area so poorly known paleontologically, so there was a unique opportunity here to break new ground and establish a broad framework for future work,” he added.

Voss described O’Leary as a “force of nature” who “responds constructively to peer reviews.” Roberts, too, appreciated the effort O’Leary put into this work.

O’Leary “drove the entire process and product,” which was only possible with someone of her “vision to wrangle so much science from so many different scientists into one place,” he offered in an email.

Roberts is very pleased with the finished product and added that it is “something that I will be proud of for the rest of my career. This took a lot of effort over the years and it great to see the end product.”

O’Leary said that much of the literature for the science in Mali was in French, which had kept it a bit below the radar for scientific discourse, which tends to be in English.

Indeed, O’Leary was able to facilitate conversations among the many people involved in this project because French was the common denominator language. She studied French at the Holton-Arms School in Bethesda, Maryland. “When I was sitting in my high school French class, I didn’t think it would come in so handy to be fluent in French” in her career, O’Leary said. “It was helpful as a female leader in this situation to be able to speak for [myself], whether speaking to other Americans or collaborating or working with guards.”

O’Leary plans to look at different projects in the United States, including in Puerto Rico, and in Saudi Arabia next. “We now have this synthetic story for Mali [and will be] building out from this to other areas. I anticipate a large time to ramp up to study areas like deposits in Nevada.”

Gábor Balázsi. Photo from SBU

By Daniel Dunaief

Take two identical twins with the same builds, skill sets and determination. One of them may become a multimillionaire, a household name and the face of a franchise, while the other may toil away at the sport for a few years until deciding to pursue other interests.

What causes the paths of these two potential megastars to diverge?

Gábor Balázsi, an associate professor in biomedical engineering at Stony Brook University, asked a similar question about a cellular circuit in the hopes of learning more about cancer. He wanted to know what is it about the heterogeneity of a cancer cell that makes one susceptible to treatment from chemotherapeutic drugs and the other resistant to them. Heterogeneity comes from molecular differences where the original causes may be subtle, such as two molecules colliding or a cell being closer to the tumor’s surface, while the consequences can create significant differences, even among cells with the same genes.

In research published this week in the journal Nature Communications, Balázsi used two mammalian cell lines that were identical except that each carried a different synthetic gene circuit that made one more heterogeneous than the other. He subjected the two cell lines, which would otherwise perform the same function, to various levels of the same drug to determine what might cause one to be treatable and the other to become resistant. 

Through these mammalian cells, Balázsi created two circuits, one of which kept the differences between the cells low, while the other caused larger differences. Once inserted in the cell, these gene circuits created uniform and variable populations that could serve as models for low and high heterogeneity in cancer.

Working with Kevin Farquhar, who recently graduated from Balázsi’s lab, and former Stony Brook postdoc Daniel Charlebois, who is currently at the Department of Physics at the University of Alberta, Balázsi tried to test how uniform versus heterogeneous cell populations respond to treatment with different drug levels. 

Using the two synthetic gene circuits in separate but identical cell lines, the Stony Brook scientists, with financial support from the National Institutes of Health and the Laufer Center for Physical and Quantitative Biology at SBU, could re-create high and low stochasticity, or noise, in drug resistance in two cell lines that were otherwise identical.

While the work is in its preliminary stages and is a long way from the complicated collection of genes responsible for various types of cancer, this kind of analysis can test the importance of specific processes for drug resistance.

“Only in the last decade or so have we come to realize how much heterogeneity (genetic and nongenetic differences) can exist within a tumor in a single patient,” Patricia Thompson-Carino, a professor in the Department of Pathology at the Renaissance School of Medicine at SBU, explained in an email. “Thinking of cancer in a single patient as several different diseases is a bit daunting, though currently, this heterogeneity and its direct effects on how the cancer behaves remains poorly understood.”

Indeed, Thompson-Carino added that she believes Balázsi’s work will “shed light on cancer cell responses to therapy. With the rise in cancer therapies designed to specific targets and the resistance that emerges in patients on these therapies, I think [Balázsi’s] work is of extremely high value” which may help with the puzzle of how nongenetic or epigenetic heterogeneity affects responses to treatment, she continued.

In the future, researchers and clinicians may look to develop new ways of biomarker analysis that considers the variability, rather than just the average level of a biomarker.

Balázsi suggested that looking only at the variability of cells is analogous to observing an iron block sinking in water. Someone might conclude that all solids sink in liquids. Similarly, scientists might decide that cellular variability always promotes drug resistance from observations when this happens. To gain a fuller understanding of the effect of variability, however, researchers need to equalize the averages. They then need to explore what happens at various levels of drug treatment.

Current therapies do not target heterogeneity. If such future treatments existed, doctors and scientists could combine ways of treating heterogeneity with attacking cancer, which might work in the short term or prevent cancer from recurring.

Balázsi suggests his paper is a part of his attempt to address three different areas. First, he’d like to figure out how to categorize patients better, including the variability of biomarkers. Second, he believes this kind of analysis will assist in creating future combinations of treatments. By understanding how the variability of cancer cells contributes to its reaction to therapies, he might help create a cocktail of treatments, akin to the effort that helped with the treatment of HIV in the lab.

Third, he’d like to obtain cancer samples and allow them to evolve in a lab, where he can check to see how they respond to treatment levels and administration scheduling. This effort could allow him to determine the optimal drug combination and dosing for a patient.

For the work that led to the current Nature Communications paper, Balázsi explored how mammalian cells respond to various concentrations of a drug. Over 80 percent of the genes in these cells are also present in human cells, so the mechanisms he discovered and conclusions he draws should apply to human cancer cells as well.

He concluded that cells with more heterogeneity, where the cells deviate more from the average, resist drugs better when the drug level is high. These same cells, show greater sensitivity when the drug is low.

Balázsi recognizes that the work he’s exploring is a “complex problem” and that it requires considerable additional research to understand and appreciate how a therapy might kill one cancer cell, while the same treatment in the same environment doesn’t have the same effect on a genetically identical cell.

Ela Elyada. Photo by Giulia Biffi

By Daniel Dunaief

They have the ability to call the body’s armed forces. They may interact with the immunological foot soldiers and, then, somehow, inactivate them, allowing the destructive cancer they may aid and abet to continue causing havoc.

This is one hypothesis about how a newly discovered class of fibroblasts may play a role in the progression of pancreatic cancer.

Ela Elyada, a postdoctoral fellow in David Tuveson’s lab at Cold Spring Harbor Lab, partnered up with Associate Professor Paul Robson at the Jackson Laboratory in Farmington, Connecticut, to find a new class of fibroblast in pancreatic cancer.

This cell, which they called antigen-presenting cancer-associated fibroblasts (or apCAFs) had the same kind of genes that are usually found in immune cells. Cells with these genes have signals on their surface that present antigens, or foreign parts of viruses and bacteria to helper T-cells. Elyada and Robson showed that the apCAFs can use their immune cell genes to present peptides to helper T-cells.

With the apCAFs, the researchers hypothesize that something about the immunological process goes awry, as the T-cells show up but don’t engage.

Elyada and Robson suspect that the activation process may be incomplete, which prevents the body’s own defense system from recognizing and attacking the unwelcome cancer cells.

While she was excited about the potential of finding a different type of cell, Elyada needed to convince herself, and the rest of the scientific community, that what she’d found was truly original, as opposed to a scientific mirage.

“We spent hours and hours trying to understand what is different in this type of cell,” Elyada said. “Like everything new you find, as a scientist, you really question yourself, ‘Is it real? Is it an artifact of the single cell?’ It was really important for me to do everything I could from every angle to make sure they were not macrophages that looked like fibroblasts or cancer cells that looked like fibroblasts.”

After considerable effort, Elyada was sure without a doubt that the group had found fibroblasts and that these specific cells, which typically are involved in connective tissue but which pancreatic cancer uses to form a shell around it, contained these immunological genes.

She sees these cells in different experiments from other people inside and outside the lab, which further supports her work and found the apCAFs in mice and human pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma, which is the fourth leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the world.

The fibroblasts, which are not cancerous, play an unclear role in pancreatic cancer. 

Elyada explained that single-cell sequencing enables scientists to look at individual cells, instead of at a whole population of cells. Scientists “have started to utilize this method to look at differences between cells we thought were the same,” she said. “It’s useful for looking at the fibroblast population. Scientists have appreciated that there’s probably a lot of heterogeneity,” but they hadn’t been able to describe or define it as well without this technique.

The results of this research, which was a collaboration between Elyada, Robson and others, were recently published in the journal Cancer Discovery. Robson said it was a “great example of how [single-cell RNA sequencing] can be very useful in revealing new biology, in this case, a new subtype of cancer-associated fibroblast.”

Earlier work in the labs of Robson and Tuveson, among others, have shown heterogeneity within cancer-associated fibroblast populations. These often carry a worse prognosis.

“We are very interested in continuing to explore this heterogeneity across tumor types and expect we will continue to find new subtypes and, although we have yet to confirm, would expect to see other solid tumor types to contain apCAFs,” Robson said.

“We still need to work hard to reveal their function in the full animal, but if they turn out to be tricking the immune cells, they could be a target for different immune-related inhibition methods,” explained Elyada.

The newly described fibroblast cells may be sending a signal to the T-cells and then either trapping or deactivating them. Elyada and Robson both said these results, which they developed after working together since 2016, have led to numerous other questions. They want to know how they work, what the mechanisms are that allow their formation, what signals they trigger in T-cells and many other questions.

Elyada is working with Pasquale Laise in Andrea Califano’s lab at Columbia University to gather additional information that uses this single-cell sequencing data.

Laise has “a unique way of analyzing [the information] to look at how the sequencing can predict if proteins are active or not active in a cell,” she said. Laise is able to predict the activity of transcription factors according to the expression level of their known target.

Elyada may be able to use this information to understand the source cell from which the fibroblasts are coming.

Originally from Israel, Elyada has been working as a postdoctoral researcher in Tuveson’s lab for about six years. She lives in Huntington Village with her husband Gal Nechooshtan, a postdoctoral researcher at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory’s Woodbury complex. The couple has two daughters, Maayan, who is 10, and Yael, who is 8.

Elyada hopes to return to Israel next year, where she’d like to secure a job as a professor and build on the work she’s done at CSHL.“I definitely want to keep working on this. This would hopefully be a successful project in my future lab.”

Mircea Cotlet. Photo courtesy of BNL

By Daniel Dunaief

An innovative scientist in the world of nanostructures, Mircea Cotlet recently scored Inventor of the Year honors from Battelle.

A principal investigator and materials scientist in the Soft and Bio Nanomaterials Group at the Center for Functional Nanomaterials at Brookhaven National Laboratory, Cotlet has conducted a wide range of research over his dozen years on Long Island.

The distinction from Battelle, which manages BNL through Brookhaven Sciences Associates, honors researchers who have made significant scientific or engineering contributions that have societal or financial impacts.

“The award recognizes [Cotlet’s] ongoing contributions to materials science at BNL, specifically his work on low-dimensional semiconductors, 1-D nanowires, and tiny 0-D nanocrystals called quantum dots,” Katy Delaney, a Battelle spokesperson, explained in an email.

Researchers who have worked with Cotlet believe he deserves the honor.

Cotlet is an “extraordinary scientist” who “stands out” for his thorough work and creative approach” said Deep Jariwala, an assistant professor in the Department of Electrical and Systems Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania. Jariwala has known Cotlet for over two years and has collaborated with him over the last year.

Cotlet has “really laid the foundational ground in understanding the rules that govern charge and energy transfer across hybrid quantum confined materials systems that comprise quantum dots, organic molecules–two-dimensional materials as well as biologically photoactive materials,” Jariwala added.

The technologies will impact the science and technologies of sensing, displays and energy harvesting in the future, Jariwala predicted.

Eric Stach, a professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania who had previously worked at the CFN, said Cotlet “tries to figure out ways of putting together disparate systems at the nanoscale.”

By combining these materials, Cotlet is able to “improve the overall performance” of systems, Stach continued. “He’s trying to tune the ability of a given material system to capture light and do something with it.”

Cotlet recently partnered self-assembled two-dimensional nanoparticles, such as the one-atom-thick graphene, with light-absorbing materials like organic compounds.

The result enhances their ability to detect light, which could be valuable in medical imaging, radiation detection and surveillance applications. The mini-partnership boosted the photoresponse of graphene by up to 600 percent by changing the structure of the polymer.

Indeed, a defense contractor has shown an interest in research they could use for low light level detection applications, Cotlet said.

Like other scientists at BNL, Cotlet not only conducts his own research, but he also helps other scientists who come to the Department of Energy facility to use the equipment at the CFN, to make basic and translational science discoveries.

Cotlet patented a self-assembly process before he published it.

He is continuing conversations with a big company that is exploring the benefits of this type of approach for one of its product, while he is also working with the technology transfer office at BNL to look at the development of photodetectors for low light applications.

“Having graphene and the conductor polymer would absorb light from ultraviolet to visible light,” Cotlet said.

The physics changes from bulk to nanoparticles to nanocrystals, Cotlet said, and he engineers the smaller materials for a given function.

“We basically like to play with the interface between different types of nanomaterials,” he said. “We like to control the light-simulated process.”

Working at an energy department site, he also has experience with solar panels and with light-emitting diodes.

Jariwala described the science as extending to interfaces that also occur in nature, such as in photosynthesis and bioluminescence. “By combining techniques and materials that we have developed and looked at, we hope to answer fundamental mechanistic questions and provide insights into long-standing questions about biological energy conversion processes,” he wrote.

As far as some of the current materials he uses, Cotlet works on graphene and the transition metal dichalcogenides and he explores their potential application as quantum materials. He tries to look for emerging properties coming out of nanomaterials for various applications, but most of his efforts are in basic science.

Jariwala explained that he and Cotlet are seeking to understand the efficient transduction of energy in quantum sized systems when they are brought close to one another in an orderly fashion.

After his upbringing in Romania, where he attended college, Cotlet appreciated the opportunity to learn from one of the pioneering groups in the world in single-molecule microscopy at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Belgium, where he studied for his doctorate.

He also did a fellowship at Harvard, where he worked on unique microscopy, and then went on to conduct postdoctoral work at Los Alamos National Laboratory, where he worked on protein folding and on optimal imaging methods.

Cotlet arrived at the CFN just as the facility was going online.

“The CFN went beyond its original promise for cutting edge science,” he said. The center has been, and he continues to hope it will be, the best place he could dream of to conduct research.

The postdoctoral researchers who have come through his lab have all been successful, either leading their own projects or joining commercial teams.

Up until he was 18, Cotlet wasn’t focused on science, but, rather, anticipated becoming a fighter pilot. He discovered, however, that he had a vision defect.

“All my childhood, I was set up to become a fighter pilot,” but the discovery of a condition called chromatopsy changed his plans.

A resident of Rocky Point, Cotlet lives with his wife, Ana Popovici, who is an administrative assistant at BNL, and their middle school daughter.

As for his future work, he is interested in building on the research into quantum materials.

“I’m looking forward to trying to integrate my research” into this arena, he said.

Fusheng Wang. Photo from SBU

By Daniel Dunaief

Long Island’s opioid-related use and poisoning, which nearly doubled from 2015 to 2016, was higher among lower income households in Nassau and Suffolk counties, according to a recent study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

Looking at hospital codes throughout New York to gather specific data about medical problems caused by the overuse or addiction to painkillers, researchers including Fusheng Wang, an assistant professor in the Department of Biomedical Informatics at Stony Brook University, George Leibowitz, a professor in Stony Brook’s School of Social Welfare, and Elinor Schoenfeld, a research professor of preventive medicine at the Renaissance School of Medicine at Stony Brook, explored patterns that reveal details about the epidemic on Long Island.

“We want to know what the population groups are who get addicted or get poisoned and what are the regions we have to pay a lot of attention to,” Wang said. “We try to use lots of information to support these studies.”

Data from The Journal

The Stony Brook team, which received financial support from the National Science Foundation, explored over 7 years of hospital data from 2010 to 2016 in which seven different codes — all related to opioid problems — were reported.

During those years, the rates of opioid poisoning increased by 250 percent. In their report, the scientists urged a greater understanding and intervening at the community level, focusing on those most at risk.

Indeed, the ZIP codes that showed the greatest percentage of opioid poisoning came from communities with the lowest median home value, the greatest percentage of residents who completed high school and the lowest percentage of residents who achieved education beyond college, according to the study.

In Suffolk County, specifically, the highest quartile of opioid poisoning occurred in communities with lower median income.

Patients with opioid poisoning were typically younger and more often identified themselves as white. People battling the painkilling affliction in Suffolk County were more likely to use self-pay only and less likely to use Medicare.

In Suffolk County, the patients who had opioid poisoning also were concentrated along the western section, where population densities were higher than in other regions of the county.

The Stony Brook scientists suggested that the data are consistent with information presented by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which has found significant increases in use by women, older adults and non-Hispanic whites.

“The observed trends are consistent with national statistics of higher opioid use among lower-income households,” the authors wrote in their study. Opioid prescribing among Medicare Part D recipients has risen 2.84 percent in the Empire State. The data on Long Island reflected the national trend among states with older residents.

“States with higher median population age consume more opioids per capita, suggesting that older adults consume more opioids,” the study suggested, citing a report last year from the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

Nationally, between 21 to 29 percent of people prescribed opioids for pain misused them, according to the study, which cited other research. About 4 to 6 percent of people who misuse opioids then transition to heroin. Opioid costs, including treatment and criminal justice, have climbed to about $500 billion, up from $55.7 billion in 2007, according to a 2017 study in the journal Pain Physician.

The findings from the current study on Long Island, the authors suggest, are helping regional efforts to plan for and expand capacity to provide focused and targeted intervention where they are needed most.

Limited trained staff present challenges for the implementation of efforts like evidenced-based psychosocial programs such as the Vermont Hub and Spoke system.

The researchers suggest that the information about communities in need provides a critical first step in addressing provider shortages.

New York State cautioned that findings from this study may underreport the burden of opioid abuse and dependence, according to the study. To understand the extent of underreporting, the scientists suggest conducting similar studies in other states.

Scientists are increasingly looking to the field of informatics to analyze and interpret large data sets. The lower cost of computing, coupled with an abundance of available data, allows researchers to ask more detailed and specific questions in a shorter space of time.

Wang said this kind of information about the opioid crisis can provide those engaging in public policy with a specific understanding of the crisis. “People are not [generally] aware of the overall distribution” of opioid cases, Wang said. Each hospital only has its own data, while “we can provide a much more accurate” analysis, comparing each group.

Gathering the data from the hospitals took considerable time, he said. “We want to get information and push this to local administrations. We want to eventually support wide information for decision-making by the government.”

Wang credited his collaborators Leibowitz and Schoenfeld with making connections with local governments.

He became involved in this project because of contact he made with Stony Brook Hospital in 2016. Wang is also studying comorbidity: He’d like to know what other presenting symptoms, addictions or problems patients with opioid-related crises have when they visit the hospital. The next stage, he said, is to look at the effectiveness of different types of treatment.

A resident of Lake Grove, Wang believes he made the right decision to join Stony Brook. “I really enjoy my research here,” he said.

Tiny nematodes like this one were found to be unexpectedly hardy, reviving after thousands of years frozen in Arctic ice. Stock photo

By Elof Axel Carlson

Elof Axel Carlson

Back in 1968 I gave a futuristic public lecture at UCLA in which I predicted that the mummified tissue of long dead people could be used to reconstruct their genotypes and, if the chemical tools became available, this could lead to what I called “necrogenetic twinning.”

That got on the wire services and I got clippings with headlines like “King Tut may become a papa.” I also got letters from the public including one irate lady who said, “If you were my son, I’d beat you with a broomstick.” Well there is a field of paleogenetics today, and it is being used to work out the genomes of Neanderthal ancestors and may some day be used to bring back old favorites like passenger pigeons and dodos.

But there is a more immediate source of bringing back a few of the presumed long dead that are present in permafrost. The term was coined in 1943 in a report carried out by the U.S. Army. It is an acronym for permanently frozen soil. That is not ice in waterlogged soil. When permafrost is subject to warm temperatures, it thaws. It does not melt. But from that thawed material the organic matter can be isolated and dated by carbon-14 techniques to get the age. 

Recently, Russian scientists studying thawed permafrost discovered samples (one 32,000 years old and the other 42,000 years old) that produced live nematodes that had been frozen for a very long sleep. They began moving a few weeks after removal and eating bacteria and protozoa on a petri dish. These are roundworms related to vinegar eels as they are called, which can be seen in organic vinegars served in restaurants. Hold such a cruet of vinegar to the light and you will see what look like tiny flakes jittering about in the vinegar.

It is not just cold temperature that can preserve life for centuries. Date palm seeds that are more than a thousand years old have been planted and produced fruit bearing dates. The record of the deepest sleep, however, goes to bacterial spores isolated from salt crystals in rock that was present 250 million years ago. They hatched from their protected state and formed bacterial colonies.

I would not be surprised to find future core samples from ocean cores taken in rock that may be as old as the first life-forms on Earth (viruslike) whose sequences might reveal the first genotypes capable of sustaining life in the organic soup thought to be present when the lifeless Earth was formed. That is a speculation that appeals to the imagination. But we humans can also imagine other possibilities that are less charming than alarming.

What if these early life-forms, whether from permafrost or ocean dredgings, contain pathogens that find humans a suitable host? Ancient viruses would not be treatable by antibiotics, and vaccines might be needed to check their spread. Ancient bacteria might be contained by present-day antibiotics, but some might not.

But is that not true of humans who have explored Earth? Many have come down with diseases they did not know existed in the ruins of ancient civilizations. When Darwin was in the Amazon, he contracted Chagas disease, which made him sickly in his later life. My father was in the Merchant Marine in his youth and came down with malaria and had summer chills when the sporozoans decided to celebrate.

That is why my wife Nedra and I had to get several vaccinations when we traveled on Semester at Sea. When we approached equatorial countries, we had to take anti-malarial medication to prevent coming down with a life-threatening malaria infection. Life is full of risks and not all are predictable, but using knowledge often thwarts unknown threats we may encounter.

Elof Axel Carlson is a distinguished teaching professor emeritus in the Department of Biochemistry and Cell Biology at Stony Brook University.

Many who attended the 3rd annual Eastern Long Island Mini Maker’s Faire in Port Jefferson were first greeted to was a bear — hulking, rusted statue of a bear with arms of wood and corroded steel, a torso of used tires and organs made from oil filters and oil sumps. In the center of his chest was a cow heart suspended in formaldehyde.

“Bear” the sculpture by local team Dirt People Studios, was just one of many demonstrations of science, art and ingenuity at the fair, hosted by the nonprofit Long Island Explorium.

Scientists demonstrated the dangers of storm surges on Long Island, while robotics teams from Stony Brook University and other local high schools showed off what they have worked on for the past year.

Local DiYers like Jim Mason of LB Robotics, a maker of strange and interesting robotics, showed his work with a 3D printer and his projects using parts and tools he has found around his home.

“The music, the sun, the fun and play, see ya next year, Robo say,” Mason posted to his Facebook page.

Many of Madagascar’s iconic lemur species such as this black-and-white ruffed lemur are critically endangered. Photo by Daniel Burgas

By Daniel Dunaief

As a part of an ambitious reforestation plan announced in March, Madagascar’s newly elected president Andry Rajoelina explained that he wanted to change the way his nation off the southwest coast of the African continent was known, from the Red Island to the Green Island.

An international collection of scientists, including lemur expert and award-winning scientist Patricia Wright of Stony Brook University, recently weighed in on other ways Rajoelina can help conservation goals for the country through a five-step solution they outlined in the journal Nature Sustainability.

“We are all very concerned” about the fate of biodiversity in Madagascar, said Wright. “We know that only with a collaborative effort can we push things in the right direction.”

Madagascar, which has numerous species endemic to the island nation, including many of the lemurs Wright studies, is known as the island of red clay in part because deforestation has exposed much of the clay underlying the country. This clay has eroded into rivers, which have washed into the ocean.

“If you flew over the whole island, it would be very sad” because of all the exposed red clay from deforestation, Wright said.

She remains optimistic about Rajoelina’s goals and the potential for achieving them. The president “talked about going on the offensive and reforestation is one of his platforms,” she said. “It’s most important to reforest with endemic species,” as opposed to eucalyptus and pine.

Unlike in other countries, where politicians sometimes view conservation and economic development as forces pulling in opposite directions, Malagasy leaders acknowledge and recognize the benefit of preserving unique habitats that are home to the rare and threatened species of Madagascar.

“If you destroy all the forests, you destroy all the water and they will no longer be able to farm,” Wright said. “The natural wildlife and habitats are closely connected to their well-being. One of the biggest industries is ecotourism, which supports many industries on the ground. It’s not like there’s a line between people and wildlife.”

Indeed, the scientists acknowledge the importance of financial growth for the country that dovetails with their conservation goals.

“Conservation needs to contribute to, and not detract from, national efforts targeting economic development,” Julia Jones of Bangor University, in Wales, who led the study, said in a press release. “It must not make situations worse for the rural poor who are so often marginalized in decision making.”

The people of Madagascar have many of the same needs as those in other countries, as they seek jobs, health care, and good schooling, Wright said. “These families are closer to not having enough food to eat and they are much poorer if the natural resources are all destroyed.”

Concerned about the fate of biodiversity in Madagascar, Jones contacted Wright, who suggested the team enlist the help of Jonah Ratsimbazafy from the University of Antananarivo in Madagascar.

“It was just a matter of bringing together some of the key players in conservation for 20 years,” explained Wright.

The group generated a list of five priorities.

First on the list is tackling environmental crime. The scientists suggest using new technologies, including remote sensing and rapid DNA barcoding, to allow forest rangers and others to identify protected species. To improve this effort, however, the Ministry of Justice also needs to enhance the way it reacts to environmental crimes.

The researchers suggest prosecuting and fining those who traffic in rosewood or the critically endangered species for the pet trade. They see progress in this arena in the northeastern part of the island nation, where prosecutors have effectively charged some people who have sold rosewood.

Second, the group recommends investing in protected areas. The researchers urge greater investment in policy, legal and economic conditions that encourage additional investment in nature, which could include improving infrastructure to develop tourism around protected areas, payment for ecosystem services and debt for nature swaps.

Critically endangered species such as these ploughshare tortoises may be extinct in the wild within the next few years if illegal collection isn’t stopped. Photo by Chris Scarffe

Third, the scientists urge that major infrastructure developments limit the impact on biodiversity. The current environmental impact assessment law is over 20 years old and needs an update to require the use of environmental assessment. This component also includes a greater commitment to enforcement.

Fourth, the scientists suggest strengthening tenure rights for local people over natural resources. Most farmers can’t get certification for their land, which reduces the incentive for them to invest in settled agriculture and potentially exacerbates forest clearance. A review of tenure laws could help local landowners and biodiversity.

Finally, researchers recognize a growing crisis in fuel wood. They urge an investment in reforestation efforts, which could provide environmental and economic benefits.

While these steps are important for Rajoelina and the government in Madagascar, Wright suggests several ways Long Islanders can help. She urges school teachers to cover Madagascar in their classes. Teachers in the area who are interested in gathering information about the island nation can write to Wright at Patricia.Wright@stonybrook.edu.

She also urges people to become involved through social media, which they can use to have fundraisers through organizations like PIVOT, an organization committed to improving health in developing nations like Madagascar and strongly encourages people to visit Madagascar, where they can enjoy the benefits of ecotourism.

Visitors to Madagascar would have the incredible opportunity to witness the varied biodiversity for themselves.“We have charismatic lemurs,” Wright said, although many of them are critically endangered. Even if they can’t travel that far, people can support students who wish to study abroad.

“I don’t think health and wildlife are separated,” Wright said. “The health of the people depends on us preserving natural resources.”

She is looking forward to the Annual Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation meeting in Antananarivo, Madagascar, from July 30 through August 3. “Hopefully, we will be going forward with the next step during or shortly after that meeting.”

Bruce Stillman. Photo courtesy of CSHL

By Daniel Dunaief

Bruce Stillman, the president and CEO of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, was recently awarded the prestigious Canada Gairdner International Award for his contributions to research about the way DNA copies itself. The 60-year-old prize, which Stillman will receive in a ceremony in October and that he shares with his former postdoctoral fellow John Diffley, includes a financial award of $100,000 Canadian dollars that he can spend however he’d like.

A native Australian, Stillman, who has been at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory since 1979, recently shared his thoughts about the award, research at the lab and his concerns about science in society with Times Beacon Record News Media. 

How does it feel winning the Gairdner Award?

It’s one of the most prestigious awards in the life sciences in the world and it’s certainly a great honor to win it and to join the list of spectacular scientists in the history of the award. There are some really fantastic scientists who I very much admire who have received this award.

How does it relate to the research you’ve conducted?

The field of DNA replication and chromosome inheritance was recognized. It is something I’ve devoted my entire career to. There are a lot of people that have made important contributions to this field. I’m pleased to be recognized with [Diffley] who was my former postdoc. [It’s validating] that the field was recognized.

Has CSH Laboratory been at the cutting edge of discoveries using the gene-editing tool CRISPR?

Cold Spring Harbor didn’t discover CRISPR. Like many institutions, we’ve been at the forefront of applying CRISPR and gene editing. The most spectacular application of that has been in the plant field. Zachary Lippman, Dave Jackson and Rob Martienssen are using genetic engineering to understand plant morphogenesis and development, thereby increasing the yield of fruit. Hopefully, this will be expanded into grains and have another green revolution.

CSHL has also been making strides in cancer research, particularly in Dave Tuveson’s lab, with organoids.

Organoids came out of people studying development. Hans Clevers [developed organoids] in the Netherlands … Tuveson is at the forefront of that. The full promise hasn’t been realized yet. From what I’ve seen, we are quite excited about the possibility of using organoids as a tool to get real feedback to patients. It is rapidly moving forward with the Lustgarten Foundation and with Northwell Health.

What are some of the other major initiatives at CSHL?

The laboratory’s investment about 10 or 15 years ago in understanding cognition in the brain has paid off enormously. Neuroscientists here are at the forefront of understanding cognition and how the brain does computation in complicated decisions. [Scientists are also] mapping circuits in the brain. It took a lot of investment and kind of the belief that studying rodent cognition could have an impact on human cognition, which was controversial when we started it here, but has paid out quite well. At the same time, we are studying cognitive dysfunction particularly in autism. 

Any other technological advances?

There’s been a real revolution in the field of structural biology… [Researchers] have the ability to look at single biological molecules in the electron microscope. It shoots electrons through a grid that has individual biological molecules. The revolution, which was done elsewhere by many people actually, led to the ability to get atomic resolution structures of macro molecular complexes. 

Cold Spring Harbor invested a lot of money, well over $10 million to build a facility and staff a facility to operate this new technology. I’ve been working on this area for about 12, 13 years now … Our structural biologists here in neuroscience, including neuroscientists Hiro Furukawa and Leemor Joshua-Tor have really helped introduce a lot of new biology into CSHL.

What are some of the newer efforts at the lab?

One of the big new initiatives we started is in the field of cancer. As you know by looking around, there’s an obesity epidemic in the Western world. We started a fairly large initiative, understanding the relationship between obesity and cancer and nutrition, and we’re not unique in this. We’re going to have some significant contributions in this area. 

Cancer cells and the tumor affect the whole body physiology. The most severe [consequence] is that advanced cancer patients lose weight through a process called cachexia. We hired [new staff] in this new initiative, renovated a historic building, the Demerec building at a fairly substantial expense, which was supported by New York State. 

What will CSHL researchers study related to obesity?

We’re absolutely going to be focusing on understanding mostly how obesity impacts cancer and the immune system, then how cancer impacts the whole body physiology. Hopefully, once we start to understand the circuits, [we] will be able to intervene. If we can control obesity, we will by logic reduce cancer impact.

What worries you about society?

What worries me is that there is a tendency in this country to ignore science in policy decisions … The number of people not getting vaccinated for measles is ridiculous. There is this kind of pervasive anti-science, anti-technology view that a lot of Americans have. They want the benefits of science and everything that can profit for them. 

There are certain groups of people who misuse data, deliberately abuse misinformation on science to promote agendas that are completely irrational. One of the worst is anti-vaccination. … We should as a society have severe penalties for those who choose to go that route. They shouldn’t send their children to schools, participate in public areas where they could spread a disease that effectively was controlled. Imagine if polio or tuberculosis came back?

How is the lab contributing to education?

People need to act like scientists. It’s one of the reasons we have the DNA Learning Center, to teach people to think like scientists. If 99.99 percent of the evidence suggests [something specific] and 0.01 percent suggest something [else], you have to wonder whether those very small and vocal minority are correct.

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