Home Page Display: 
image title

Astronomer Maria Drout to give lecture on the death of stars and birth of elements

October 19, 2018

The University of Toronto professor is visiting ASU in the midst of an astronomical revolution

With new technology, astronomers are entering a golden age, witnessing cosmological phenomena as never before.

It’s paved the way for Nobel Prize-winning science, confirmed Einstein’s theories and — seemingly with each discovery — given scientists a new understanding of the universe. 

Astronomer Maria Drout, a new tenure-track professor at the University of Toronto, has been in the midst of this revolution. She will be coming to ASU on Oct. 25 to share the excitement of this new era in a public lecture called "Astronomical Alchemy — The Origin of the Elements."

To get a slice of the science, take for example, the afternoon of Aug. 17, 2017, when Drout, working in her lab in Pasadena, California, received a message about an event that turned out to be 130 million years in the making. 

Astronomer Maria Drout

The text alert came from scientists working at the LIGO and Virgo observatories — very precise instruments located on Earth trying to detect gravitational waves. Already, they had made scientific history in 2015 with a Nobel Prize-winning discovery from the first detection of gravitational waves that came from a pair of colliding black holes.

That August afternoon, they had detected a new cosmic chirp, followed by a burst of gamma rays emerging from deep space. What they were witnessing was the death spiral of a neutron star merger so massive and violent that it threw ripples of gravitational waves across the universe.

Within 15 minutes of receiving their alert, Drout and other astronomers around the world raced to point telescopes at the night sky to find and capture light from the source of the waves.

“Everything just got thrown in the air because it was what everyone had been waiting for for a very long time,” Drout said. “What we knew at that point was that LIGO had detected a neutron star merger. And neutron star mergers can produce light.”

Drout and her team, using the Swope and Magellan Telescopes in Chile, quickly located it. “It was incredibly hectic; we had to analyze the data immediately so we could decide in real time what new observations to take, because it wasn’t like any explosion we had seen before.”

They saw a bright burst of light during their measurements over next few days. It came from material thrown out during the collision of the neutron stars, which created a radioactive stew of heavy elements, including more gold than all the riches on the Earth.

“By studying this light, we were able to say for the first time that these heavy elements were created as the result of a neutron star merger,” Drout said. “If LIGO hadn’t been operating, it’s very likely we would have missed it, because the explosion faded away very quickly. It’s always mind-blowing to think about. Sit back and think how 130 million years ago, these two neutron stars merged and the light has been coming toward us ever since.”  

Scientists were able to witness this event — which occurred in the universe around the time when the dinosaurs roamed here on Earth — by building LIGO in the nick of time.

“And if it had happened just three weeks later, we would have never seen it: LIGO was turned off for upgrades, and that patch of sky fell below the horizon of our telescopes.”

Drout is a former NASA Hubble Postdoctoral Fellow at the Observatories of the Carnegie Institute for Science and research associate in the Dunlap Institute at the University of Toronto. She joined the faculty in the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics at the University of Toronto in September 2018.

“This event was a whirlwind. And in the future, we will know so much more from coupling together gravitational waves and light for a large number of explosions.”

Her early career and graduate work focused on observing supernovae and recording their unique bursts of light that are the telltale sign of a star’s final journey. 

first light image
The very first image of the light from a neutron star merger, taken from the Swope Telescope. Courtesy of Maria Drout

At the ASU lecture, she will take the audience on a journey of the unique conditions — the type of stars and their explosive deaths — that are the cosmic recipes for producing the elements in our universe, including the star stuff that went into making the Earth and each of us.

And still, it’s just the tip of the cosmic iceberg for discoveries yet to come.

“In this field, it’s going to get exciting very quickly. In February 2019, LIGO and VIRGO are going to be turning on again. We should be finding 10 or more of these type explosions per year going forward. There is still a lot of uncertainty about what is the exact contribution of these type of explosions to the total production of heavy elements in the universe. We’ll really start to move in that direction in 2019 and beyond.”

This event is sponsored by the new Interplanetary Initiative from the ASU School of Earth and Space Exploration

Prior to the lecture, there will be a reception and light refreshments from 4:45 to 5:30 p.m. in the lobby of Interdisciplinary Science and Technology Building IV. Event registration is required.

For those unable to attend, the lecture will also be live streamed.

Joe Caspermeyer

Manager (natural sciences) , Media Relations & Strategic Communications


image title

ASU astronomers catch red dwarf star in a superflare outburst

October 18, 2018

Powerful blasts of radiation from young stars will have consequences for life on potentially habitable planets

New observations by two Arizona State University astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope have caught a red dwarf star in a violent outburst, or superflare. The blast of radiation was more powerful than any such outburst ever detected from the sun and would likely affect the habitability of any planets orbiting it.

Moreover, the astronomers said, such superflares appear more common in younger red dwarfs, which erupt 100 to 1000 times more powerfully than they will when they age.

The superflare was detected as part of a Hubble Space Telescope observing program dubbed HAZMAT, which stands for "HAbitable Zones and M dwarf Activity across Time." The program surveys red dwarfs (also known as M dwarfs) at three different ages — young, intermediate and old — and observes them in ultraviolet light, where they show the most activity.

"Red dwarf stars are the smallest, most common and longest-lived stars in the galaxy," said Evgenya Shkolnik, an assistant professor in ASU's School of Earth and Space Exploration and the HAZMAT program's principal investigator. "In addition, we think that most red dwarf stars have systems of planets orbiting them."

The Hubble telescope's orbit above Earth's atmosphere gives it clear, unhindered views at ultraviolet wavelengths. The flares are believed to be powered by intense magnetic fields that get tangled by the roiling motions of the stellar atmosphere. When the tangling gets too intense, the fields break and reconnect, unleashing tremendous amounts of energy.

ASU postdoctoral researcher Parke Loyd is the first author on the paper (to be published in the Astrophysical Journal) that reports on the stellar outbursts.

"When I realized the sheer amount of light the superflare emitted, I sat looking at my computer screen for quite some time just thinking, 'Whoa,'" said Loyd. “Gathering data on young red dwarfs has been especially important because we suspected these stars would be quite unruly in their youth, which is the first hundred million years or so after they form.”

He added: "Most of the potentially habitable planets in our galaxy have had to withstand intense flares like the ones we observed at some point in their life. That's a sobering thought."

flare chart
Observations with the Hubble Space Telescope discovered a superflare (red line) that caused a red dwarf star's brightness in the far ultraviolet to abruptly increase by a factor of nearly 200. Credit: P. Loyd/ASU

Rough environment for planets

About three-quarters of the stars in our Milky Way galaxy are red dwarfs. Most of the galaxy’s "habitable-zone" planets — planets orbiting their stars at a distance where temperatures are moderate enough for liquid water to exist on their surface — orbit red dwarfs. In fact, the nearest star to our sun, a red dwarf named Proxima Centauri, has an Earth-size planet in its habitable zone.

However, red dwarfs — especially young red dwarfs — are active stars, producing flares that could blast out so much energy that it disrupts and possibly strips off the atmospheres of these fledgling planets.

"The goal of the HAZMAT program is to understand the habitability of planets around low-mass stars," explained Shkolnik. "These low-mass stars are critically important in understanding planetary atmospheres." Ultraviolet radiation can modify the chemistry in a planet’s atmosphere or potentially remove that atmosphere.

The observations reported in the Astrophysical Journal examined the flare frequency of 12 young (40-million-year-old) red dwarfs and represent just the first part of the HAZMAT program. These stars show that young low-mass stars flare much more frequently and more energetically than old stars and middle-age stars like our sun — as evidenced by the superflare.

"With the sun, we have a hundred years of good observations," said Loyd. "And in that time, we’ve seen one, maybe two, flares that have an energy approaching that of the superflare. In a little less than a day’s worth of Hubble observations of these young stars, we caught the superflare. This means that we're looking at superflares happening every day or even a few times a day." 

Could superflares of such frequency and intensity bathe young planets in so much ultraviolet radiation that they forever rule out any chance of habitability? 

According to Loyd: "Flares like we observed have the capacity to strip away the atmosphere from a planet. But that doesn't necessarily mean doom and gloom for life on the planet. It just might be different life than we imagine. Or there might be other processes that could replenish the atmosphere of the planet. It’s certainly a harsh environment, but I would hesitate to call it a sterile environment."

The next part of the HAZMAT study will be to study intermediate-age red dwarfs that are 650 million years old. Then the oldest red dwarfs will be analyzed and compared with the young and intermediate stars to understand the evolution of the high-energy-radiation environment for planets around these low-mass stars.

Red dwarfs, which are estimated to burn as long as a trillion years, have a vast stretch of time available to eventually host evolving, habitable planets. 

“They just have many more opportunities for life to evolve, given their longevity,” said Shkolnik. "I don't think we know for sure one way or another about whether planets orbiting red dwarfs are habitable just yet, but I think time will tell.

"It's great that we're living in a time when we have the technology to actually answer these kinds of questions, rather than just philosophize about them."

Top photo: Violent outbursts of seething gas from young red dwarfs may make conditions uninhabitable on fledgling planets. In this artist’s rendering, an active, young red dwarf (right) is stripping the atmosphere from an orbiting planet (left). ASU astronomers have found that flares from the youngest red dwarfs they surveyed — approximately 40 million years old — are 100 to 1,000 times more energetic than when the stars are older. They also detected one of the most intense stellar flares ever observed in ultraviolet light — more energetic than the most powerful flare ever recorded from our Sun. Credit: NASA, ESA, and D. Player (STScI)

Robert Burnham

Science writer , School of Earth and Space Exploration


In the fight against Alzheimer’s, Down syndrome may hold vital clues

October 17, 2018

At first glance, Down syndrome and Alzheimer’s disease, two severe brain abnormalities, may seem to have little in common. Down syndrome is a hereditary disease, the source of which has long been recognized — a triplication of chromosome 21. By contrast, the overwhelming majority of Alzheimer’s cases (more than 95 percent) do not have a clear-cut genetic source. Instead, the disease, which usually becomes clinically apparent late in life, is caused by a perplexing constellation of factors. While these have been the focus of intense study for more than 100 years, few conclusive answers have come to light.

In new research, Antonella Caccamo and her colleagues explore a number of critical factors that appear to link the two illnesses. The current project will use Down syndrom (DS) as a window into the underlying mechanisms that may give rise to Alzheimer’s pathology. Using this complementary approach, her $3.1 million NIH grant will explore the effects of a critical protein complex known as mTOR. Antonella Caccamo's primary research interest is linked to dissecting the molecular mechanisms underlying the pathogenesis of Alzheimer’s disease (AD). Specifically, she uses complementary approaches to study the role of the mammalian target of rapamycin in AD, and to elucidate the link between Down syndrome and AD. Caccamo has 15 years of experience working on AD and a strong track record of productivity with more than 35 peer-reviewed publications. Download Full Image

In the healthy brain, mTOR is involved in a range of essential physiological processes. mTOR is a regulator of protein synthesis and degradation. It plays a critical role in cell growth, longevity and the formation of the cytoskeleton, which provides living cells with their shape and structure, and mTOR is vital to maintaining the proper energy balance in many tissues throughout the body. mTOR is also implicated in synaptic plasticity, neuronal recovery and the retention of memory.

Caccamo is a researcher in the ASU-Banner Neurodegenerative Disease Research Center. Much of her research focuses on investigating Down syndrome molecular alterations in the brain in order to shed new light on Alzheimer’s disease (AD).

“The ultimate goal of my research is to identify novel and clinically translatable targets, thus aiding in the development of new treatments for AD,” Caccamo said.

Learning from mTOR

Disruption of the mTOR pathway has been implicated in diseases including cancer, obesity and cardiovascular disease. Dysregulation of mTOR also plays an important role in diabetes and aging, two known risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease. Irregularities in mTOR functioning are linked to other neurodegenerative diseases and have been shown to give rise to two distinct neuropathologies: depositions in the brain of plaques composed of the protein amyloid beta (Aβ), and accumulations of another protein — known as tau — that aggregates within neuronal cell bodies, forming neurofibrillary tangles.

Plaques and tangles are the classic hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease. Intriguingly, they also occur in the brains of virtually all patients with Down syndrome, some 60 percent of whom go on to develop Alzheimer’s disease by age 60. Interestingly, APP (amyloid precursor protein), a protein that when cleaved generates beta amyloid (Aβ), the toxic protein that accumulates in AD and DS brains, is located on chromosome 21, the same chromosome that is triplicated in Down syndrome.

Could disruption of the vital mTOR pathway offer clues to the development of plaques and tangles and the onset of dementia in both DS and AD patients? Is mTOR dysregulation also linked with a particular form of cell death known as necroptosis, likewise implicated in AD and DS pathology? Most importantly, can the investigation of the molecular drivers of AD pathology in DS patients provide a new window into the early mechanisms underlying the development of sporadic Alzheimer’s, the form of the disease that commonly strikes aging adults? These are some of the important questions Caccamo’s new study intends to address.

Relentless scourge

Alzheimer’s disease remains the only leading killer lacking any means of treatment, prevention or cure. The disease is pitiless in its systematic destruction of brain functioning, wiping memories clean and robbing the brain of its essential capacities, ultimately resulting in death — typically within eight to 10 years of clinical diagnosis, though in some cases, Alzheimer’s can drag on for as long as 20 years. The emotional toll on patients, caregivers and society is immense and rapidly mounting.

Additionally, the staggering economic burden currently figures in the hundreds of billions of dollars in the U.S. alone and is projected to top $1 trillion by 2050. The need for viable treatments and preventive strategies could not be more acute.

Today, researchers know that the onset of Alzheimer’s begins decades before its telltale signs become apparent. Some have gone so far as to say that while AD is usually thought of as a disease of old age, it may also be associated with adolescence when the early signposts of the disease are planted in the seemingly healthy brain. Many in the field believe that the best hope for arresting the ominous trajectory of the disease lies in identifying causal mechanisms at the earliest stage, and developing effective means of intervention before the brain is irreparably damaged.

Caccamo believes that mTOR dysregulation may be one such early mechanism, giving rise to AD pathology in aging adults as well as DS patients. Research has demonstrated that mTOR is hyperactive in specific brain regions in both AD and DS patients. mTOR hyperactivity is further associated with tau pathology as well as low levels of TSC2, a critical gene product that is believed to keep mTOR hyperactivity in check. Finally, preliminary data from Caccamo’s research indicates that cell loss in DS patients results in part from necroptosis, a unique form of cell suicide linked with dysregulation of mTOR. 

This combination of factors has led to the central hypothesis of the new study: Dysfunction of the TSC2 complex causes an increase in mTOR activity in DS, leading to AD-like neurodegeneration by inducing necroptosis.

Streams and tributaries of Alzheimer’s pathology

Caccamo’s new project, entitled "Identify common mechanisms of neurodegeneration between Alzheimer’s disease and Down syndrome," addresses these issues on several fronts. The first aim of the project is to identify the molecular mechanisms underlying mTOR hyperactivity in DS. Here, the association of dysfunctional TSC2 with mTOR hyperactivity is explored. What might be causing the downregulation of TSC2 leading to mTOR hyperactivity? Three possibilities are experimentally probed: the presence of epigenetic changes in TSC2 and mTOR, alteration of the turnover rate of the TSC2 protein and newly detected proteins that may likewise contribute to destabilizing the delicate TSC2/mTOR axis.

The second aim of the study is to determine the role of hyperactive mTOR in the development of AD-like phenomena in DS. Here, the hypothesis of hyperactive mTOR leading to AD pathologies, particularly Aβ plaques and neurofibrillary tangles, is explored using Ts65Dn mice, a genetic model of Down syndrome. Caccamo’s preliminary results show that mTOR hyperactivity precedes an increase in Aβ and tau levels and degeneration of cholinergic neurons in mice. By subtly increasing or decreasing mTOR signaling, the study will test the effects of reducing mTOR on Aβ and tau levels as well as degeneration of neurons in the mice. Further, increased mTOR levels will be examined to see if such changes increase AD-like pathology and cognitive deficits. Finally, the study will identify additional proteins falling under the regulation of hyperactive mTOR in DS.

Although the death of nerve cells in both Alzheimer’s and DS brains is a well-recognized occurrence associated with impaired cognitive ability, the mechanisms leading to cell death are still not well understood. The third aim of the new study will be to examine how mTOR hyperactivity contributes to neuronal loss. Earlier work by Caccamo and others suggests that a form of programmed cell death known as necroptosis contributes to the neurodegeneration typically observed in AD brains.

The third phase of the new study will investigate the hypothesis that hyperactive mTOR helps set this neurodegeneration process in motion by activating necroptosis pathways in the brain. Systematically modulating mTOR activity and necroptosis signaling in mouse neurons will be used to test this hypothesis. In addition to improving the understanding of the mechanisms leading to cell death in DS and AD, the research will help elucidate possible therapeutic targets for these two tragic afflictions.

Researchers have much to learn from in-depth studies like these, which delve into mTOR’s profound influence on the brain, in sickness and in health. In addition to its relevance in neurodegenerative disease, mTOR’s crucial role in the aging process may shed new light on other foundational issues in neuroscience.

Richard Harth

Science writer, Biodesign Institute at ASU


image title

ASU scientists study transition to college to improve student well-being

October 16, 2018

Strong relationships with parents and friends work wonders in helping students adjust to unfamiliar higher education territory

Starting college is exciting and liberating, but sometimes it can be overwhelming or stressful. Many college students end up feeling depressed or anxious.

To understand this issue, Arizona State University scientists tracked how students' relationships with parents and friends affected the transition to college. The study, now available online, is in press at Developmental Psychology and is part of the larger ASU Support for Success Initiative for Students Transitioning to College (ASSIST) study.

“Undergraduate students in the U.S. struggle with depression and anxiety at alarming rates,” said Adam Rogers, who recently earned his doctorate at ASU and is first author on the study.

The researchers enrolled incoming ASU students during summer orientation sessions about college and followed the participants until after their first semester ended. Twice a week, the students answered mini questionnaires that were delivered by text message. These mini questionnaires, called electronic momentary assessments, gave the researchers information about how positive or negative a student was feeling on that particular day. In total, 174 student participants completed a maximum of 55 electronic momentary assessments over 28 weeks.

ASU Assistant Professor
Thao Ha

“The electronic momentary assessments gave us unique data and let us look in detail at fluctuations in emotions during the transition to college,” said Thao Ha, assistant professor of psychology and senior author on the study.

The positive emotions measured with the momentary assessments were attentiveness, excitement and happiness. The negative emotions were feeling nervous, irritable, upset, depressed or lonely. Based on the electronic momentary assessments, the researchers found that as soon as college began, positive emotions started to steadily decrease. The negative emotions of the students were low overall and on average did not change much during the study.

On each momentary assessment, the student participants also answered questions about their relationships with parents and friends such as: How much time have you spent with your parent (or friend) today? How satisfied today are you with the relationship? Did you have a conflict? Did you feel pressured?

The relationships with parents and friends affected how positive or negative students felt on a given day. The participants who reported conflict or pressure in their relationships had increased negative emotions. What mattered the most about the relationships students had with their parents and friends was whether they were satisfied with the interactions.

“If participants indicated they had satisfactory contact with their parents or friends, they reported higher levels of positive affect and lower levels of negative affect,” Ha said. “Feeling pressured and experiencing conflict with both parents and friends had the opposite effect and actually was associated with increased negative affect after the transition to college.”

A goal of the ASSIST study is to prevent students from experiencing depression or anxiety during the transition to college. The researchers have developed an online intervention designed to provide parents effective communication tools to support their student as they navigate university life.

“This study is one of the first showing that healthy and supportive relationships with parents and friends are important for a student’s overall well-being during the transition to college,” Ha said. "These are pretty strong findings showing our social relationships during the college transition really matter for students’ mood."


Aaron Krasnow, associate vice president of ASU Counseling Services and Health Services, said the university has redesigned how it approaches orientation for new students based on the findings from this study.

“The findings from the ASSIST study have reaffirmed a general belief at ASU that it is important to ensure the entire family feels connected to the university,” he said. “Because families are the primary support systems for our students, we will continue to invest in educating parents and families so that they understand the context of the transition to the university environment.”

The ASSIST study was funded by ASU Educational Outreach and Student Services, the T. Denny Sanford School of Social and Family Dynamics, the Department of Psychology and the REACH Institute.

Kimberly Updegraff and Masumi Iida from the T. Denny Sanford School of Social and Family Dynamics, Scott Van Lenten from the ASU Department of Psychology, and Leah Doane and Will Corbin from the REACH Institute and the Department of Psychology also contributed to the study. The late Thomas Dishion initiated the ASSIST study.

Top photo: ASU students walk down Palm Walk on the Tempe campus on the first day of class Aug. 16. Photo by Marcus Chormicle/ASU Now

Science writer , Psychology Department


ASU In the News

Jaguar zoos in the ancient Maya world

In the Maya city of Copán lies a crypt holding the remains of 16 jaguars and pumas. By analyzing the chemicals in their bones, scientists have revealed that the Maya raised the fearsome predators in captivity and fed them domesticated, corn-fed animals.

Kelly Knudson, a professor in ASU’s School of Human Evolution and Social Change, commented that the study gives a new perspective on the relationship between ancient societies and animals. photo of jaguar Image courtesy of Pixabay.com
Download Full Image

“We think of zoos and captive animals as a very modern thing, and also tend to think that animals in the past are merely food sources or beasts of burden. This study helps us rethink both of these assumptions,” she said.

In addition, the study’s lead author, Nawa Sugiyama, an alumnus of the school, argued that new developments in isotope analysis were a crucial factor in her discovery.

“I would never have been able to look at the Copán material and known that (the jaguars) were captive. … Chemically, though, it’s a very different ball game,” she said.

Read the full article to learn more.

Article Source: The Atlantic
Mikala Kass

Editorial Communications Coordinator, School of Human Evolution and Social Change


Liver-on-a-chip, the ideal test environment for CRISPR

October 12, 2018

Two Arizona State University professors are among the first recipients of Somatic Cell Genome Editing (SCGE) grants from the National Institutes of Health Common Fund. The $2,600,000, five-year grant will fund the first study of the genome editing technology CRISPR to be used on a “human liver-on-a-chip” platform.

The SCGE program, launched in January 2018, is aimed at improving therapeutic options for both rare and common diseases, including supporting methods to improve editing the human genome. ASU assistant professors Samira Kiani and Mo Ebrahimkhani pose side by side in Dr. Kiani's lab Samira Kiani and Mo Ebrahimkhani, assistant professors in the School of Biological and Health Systems Engineering, will use a "human liver-on-a-chip" platform to assess the safety and efficacy of CRISPR on human tissue function. Download Full Image

Samira Kiani and Mo Ebrahimkhani, assistant professors in the School of Biological and Health Systems Engineering, are combining their expertise in Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, or CRISPR, technology and human microphysiological systems to assess the safety and efficacy of genome editing and its effects on human tissue function.

CRISPR enables researchers to target genes and genetic materials in cells to regulate how they behave and function. Because of CRISPR’s ease of engineering and programmability, it is considered a breakthrough technology with the potential to help cure disease, repair damaged body tissue and in other ways restore people’s health.

However, as with any new technology, applying the CRISPR method can potentially produce some unintended results.

“(CRISPR) is a pathogenic source, so to put this in humans, you face a number of concerns, such as toxicity, an immune response, or some other side effects that it might affect cell tissues in humans,” said Kiani, the project lead for the multi-institution endeavor. “There’s a chance introducing the system creates some sort of off-target effects in the genome, meaning that it not only influences the target DNA code, but also does some unintended modifications in parts of the genome that we don’t know (about) and don’t want.”

Kiani and Ebrahimkhani will apply the CRISPR method on the Liverchip platform in an effort to identify the biomarkers within the human liver genome that indicate toxicity. DNA analysis will also reveal biomarkers that indicate the off-target effects of Cas9 — the DNA-cleaving enzyme used in CRISPR that enables highly precise gene editing and regulation.

Until now, CRISPR has only been tested in animal models or human cell lines. Using the Liverchip platform provides a model that recapitulates closely human biology and will significantly reduce the number of discrepancies introduced by animal models.

These organ-on-a-chip mediums are essentially a 3D cell culture system designed to have the specific features that would exist in a human body. Multiple cells within the medium self-assemble to generate a tissue similar to a human organ, even mimicking the human body’s blood flow and the profusion of the media in cells. 

“The final objective is to create a culture system that can predict the liver tissue response in humans,” said Ebrahimkhani, who worked with this platform during his studies at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “In the long term, we hope to be able to achieve a candidate CRISPR system that can target a specific gene in humans with control over cell type, time of action and any potential toxicity.”

The liver is likely to be one of the first human organs where gene therapies will be tested. Given the frequency of degenerative, genetic diseases associated with metabolism and the function of the liver, using the liver-on-a-chip platform as a proxy for human liver cells is ideal for studying CRISPR/Cas9’s effectiveness as a therapeutic tool.

The multidisciplinary team of investigators includes Jin Park, an assistant research professor in the Virginia G. Piper Center for Personalized Diagnostics at ASU’s Biodesign Institute. Park will help with data analysis of the RNA and DNA sequences to identify biomarkers in tissues. Linda Griffith, the School of Engineering Teaching Innovation Professor of Biological and Mechanical Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a leading expert in microphysical systems, and David Hughes of CN Bio Innovations, the commercial vendor for the Liverchip, are collaborating with the ASU team in this research. They will contribute novel technologies and their expertise relevant to human-based cellular platforms. 

“We’re excited this opportunity to see that NIH entrusted the leadership of this multi-institution grant to Samira and Mo,” said Marco Santello, director of the School of Biological and Health Systems Engineering, one of the six schools in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. “It’s a true testament to the caliber of the faculty in the Fulton Schools.”

The NIH Common Fund awarded 21 SCGE grants totaling approximately $86 million over the next five years to support research aimed at improving methods to edit the human genome. These projects will help develop multicellular systems optimized for genome editing, advance delivery techniques of the CRISPR system and generate new, more effective genome editing tools. 

Lanelle Strawder

Content Manager, Communications, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering


ASU and BioXFEL consortium awarded $22.5 million to capture biology at the atomic level using X-ray lasers

October 11, 2018

Eight Arizona State University faculty researchers are part of an eight-campus consortium of U.S. universities that is revolutionizing bioimaging through collaborations with academia and industry.

A recent $22.5 million award from the National Science Foundation (NSF) will allow BioXFELBioXFEL is short for Biology with X-ray Free Electron Lasers. to continue the groundbreaking work to develop advanced imaging techniques for critical biological processes that are difficult, if not impossible, to see with conventional methods.

An X-ray free electron laser catches the dance of antibiotics and ribosomes at room temperature. Image by BioXFEL

According to Director Edward Snell, the award renewal will enable researchers to understand the complete dynamics of biological mechanisms. 

“The renewal of this award builds on the success of the first five years during which we used free electron lasers to make movies of molecular machines at work,” said John Spence, FRSForeign Member of the Royal Society., the Richard Snell Professor of Physics at ASU’s Center for Biological Physics and Biodesign Institute. Spence is the scientific director of the BioXFEL consortium, of which the eight ASU faculty form the largest component.

Over the past five years, the researchers have developed hardware and software needed to obtain X-ray snapshots and movies of molecules involved in photosynthesis, the development of new drugs and the process of antibiotic resistance, among others.

The award funds eight supported ASU faculty, who are working to obtain movies of molecular machines at work while developing experimental techniques and new algorithms. The ASU teamSpence is part of the Department of Physics. Fromme is a Regents' Professor in the School of Molecular Sciences and the School of Life Sciences. Hogue is a professor in the School of Life Sciences. Weierstall is a research professor in the Department of Physics. Kirian is an assistant professor in the Department of Physics. Liu is an assistant professor in the School of Molecular Sciences. Ros is an associate professor in the School of Molecular Sciences. Zatsepin is a research assistant professor in the Department of Physics. The School of Molecular Sciences, the School of Life Sciences and the Department of Physics are units of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. includes Spence, Petra Fromme, Brenda Hogue, Uwe Weierstall, Richard Kirian, Wei Liu, Alexandra Ros and Nadia Zatsepin, all members of the Biodesign Center for Applied Structural Discovery.

Eight researchers and their lab teams from ASU's Biodesign Center for Applied Structural Discovery will push the boundaries of X-ray crystallography as part of the nationwide BioXFEL consortium.

To develop these new methods, the group also used the Department of Energy’s SLAC laboratory near Stanford, the world's first X-ray laser. According to Spence, the grant will allow researchers to apply new methods to new problems, including understanding how enzyme catalysis works at the atomic level — a process involved in practically all human health and disease processes.

“Our researchers can capture biological molecules in atomic detail, view their functional motions by taking brief snapshots, and observe interactions in their native environment,” Spence explained.

“The compact X-ray laser (CXFEL) currently under construction at ASU Biodesign will be a huge asset to this program,” said Spence. The concept behind the ASU project is to make the XFEL technology more widely available to researchers all over the world at greatly reduced cost and size. The ASU machine will provide briefer snapshots, approaching the level where electrons themselves — rather than atoms — can be caught in motion, and allowing the time-structure of the coherent beam to be customized for new spectroscopic techniques in chemistry. Currently, scientists vie for limited — and expensive — space on one of five XFELs that currently exist in the world. "We expect the machine to be attractive to emerging economies worldwide," said Spence.

The compact X-ray laser (CXFEL) currently under construction at ASU Biodesign will be a huge asset to this program. The concept behind the ASU project is to make the XFEL technology more widely available to researchers all over the world at greatly reduced cost and size.

“BioXFEL center scientists have made revolutionary advances in just a few years, using X-ray lasers to probe phenomena previously hidden from view,” said Venu Govindaraju, vice president for research and economic development at the University at Buffalo, where the project will be administered.

The goal of the research is to harness the power of X-ray lasers to transform a broad range of scientific fields focused on structural biology and drug development and extending to potential innovations in environmental technologies and the development of new materials.

Other BioXFEL consortium members include University at Buffalo and the Hauptman-Woodward Medical Research Institute, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Stanford University, Cornell University, Rice University, the University of California, San Francisco and Miami University in Ohio.

The NSF Science and Technology Centers: Integrative Partnerships program supports innovative, potentially transformative research and education projects that require large-scale, long-term awards. The centers foster cutting-edge research, education of the next generation of scientists and broad distribution of the knowledge and technology produced.

Ellen Goodman of University at Buffalo contributed to this article.

Dianne Price

Director, Marketing and Communications, Biodesign Institute


image title

For the last time, sitting is NOT the new smoking

Sitting is not the new smoking. Here's why.
October 11, 2018

College of Health Solutions professor Matt Buman and colleagues published a paper debunking the sensationalized health myth

Thanks to social media, one inaccurate but catchy headline about research can find new life in unlimited shares and retweets, but the actual science can become dangerously distorted.

This poses an especially harmful threat when the information being misrepresented pertains to health.

ASU College of Health Solutions Associate Professor Matt Buman collaborated on an investigation with a global team of leading health researchers to debunk one particularly insidious health myth — that sitting is the new smoking.

In a paper published in the September issue of the peer-reviewed American Journal of Public Health, Buman and others gathered evidence from several large-scale epidemiological studies that look at the health risks of both sitting and smoking and found that the two are simply not comparable based on available research.

Buman recently took some time to enlighten ASU Now on the subject.

matt buman
Matt Buman

Question: When did the myth that sitting is the new smoking start gaining momentum, and why?

Answer: It was probably about 15 years ago. It’s been propagated in a number of different circles, including the scientific community and the media, initially, I think, in what was meant to be a helpful way, to try to make people aware that sitting can be harmful for you. But some have taken it and sensationalized it to equate those two as if sitting is just as bad for you as smoking is. Which doesn’t really add up.

Q: You and a team of researchers debunked that myth. How?

A: We went out and collated existing research in the field — mostly large-scale epidemiological studies that look at the risks of sitting and the risks of smoking over time — to essentially determine the risk of too much sitting versus the risk of smoking at varying levels, and how that impacts various health outcomes, such as cancers, mortality (or premature death) and other diseases. We wanted to know: When you compare the two, one to the other, which one is better for you or worse for you? And there’s just not enough evidence to claim that sitting is even comparable to smoking.

Q: How do you feel when you see studies misinterpreted and/or turned into clickbait headlines?

A: We’re in a society where we’re always getting messages saying, “The latest research says this,” and then a couple weeks later, that research says something completely different. So I think there’s some level of confusion about what you should be doing, and some of these types of messages feed into that and can make it worse. What we know about science is that new evidence is always emerging and sometimes messages do change. But what we don’t want to do is create a message that is purely sensationalistic for the sake of grabbing attention when the reality of it isn’t there, because that leads to a worsening public perception of science.

Q: How can the media do a better job of communicating science to a lay audience?

A: I will say, the message (that sitting is the new smoking) actually started in academia, among scientists. Not in the media. But it has been perpetuated by the media. But in general, I think that it’s important that the media tries to create a clear message for the public of what the research is saying, and I think it’s up to scientists to make sure that they distill that message in a way that can be consumed by the public and communicated in a way that can make an impact without misrepresenting the facts of the study.

Top photo courtesy Pixabay

ASU to host Cultural Evolution Society conference

Researchers from across the social, psychological and biological sciences will gather to discuss human evolution as a cultural organism

October 10, 2018

Why and when did humans begin to rely on culturally transmitted information? Does culture allow humans to adapt to a wide range of ecological habitats? Is culture responsible for why humans cooperate with genetically unrelated individuals? How do genes and culture affect each other’s evolution?

These are the questions that researchers in the field of cultural evolution seek to answer. City crowd Download Full Image

Cultural evolution is the study of how and why culture changes over time. The core idea is that cultural change shares fundamental similarities with genetic evolution.

ASU has become a leader in the world for researching culture from an evolutionary perspective and will play host to hundreds of researchers from a myriad of fields this month for the second annual Cultural Evolution Society global conference.

Creating multidisciplinary alliances

Boyd-book cover

For the past 45 years, researcher Robert Boyd and his colleagues have worked hard to blaze a trail connecting social culture to human evolution. Boyd, an Origins Professor in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change and research affiliate with the Institute of Human Origins, is considered a foundational influence in the field of cultural evolution and, along with research partner Peter Richerson, has produced hundreds of academic papers and several books, including his most recent: "A Different Kind of Animal: How Culture Transformed Our Species," in which Boyd outlines how culture led humans down an unusual evolutionary track. 

“Being one of the handful of people that was able to understand and make progress on the problem of incorporating social learning and cultural processes into Darwinian evolutionary ideas is something I am really proud of,” said Boyd. “It’s gone from beyond-the-frontier research to being pretty respectable.”

Boyd joined ASU in 2012 along with researcher Joan Silk, whose expertise is in the behavior of nonhuman primates. Within the School of Human Evolution and Social Change (SHESC), they have united a cadre of scholars under the research group Adaptation, Behavior, Culture and Society, which is piecing together the diverse ways that humans and nonhuman primates cooperate and accumulate culture.

Researchers in this group include

  • Ian Gilby, who studies chimpanzee social behavior and codirects the Gombe Chimpanzee Database.
  • Kim Hill, who specializes in hunter-gatherer life history and has spent many years living with the Ache of Paraguay.
  • Kevin Langergraber, who studies chimpanzee population genetics and codirects the Ngogo Chimpanzee Project.
  • Sarah Mathew, who studies the evolution of cooperation and warfare and conducts field research with Turkana pastoralists in Kenya.
  • Thomas Morgan, who uses mathematical models and laboratory experiments to understand the evolution of teaching, language and prestige.
  • Charles Perreault, who uses archaeological data to hone theoretical models of cultural evolution.
  • Pauline Wiessner, who studies the social institutions of the Kalahari Bushmen of southern Africa and the Enga of Papua New Guinea.

These researchers are also part of the Institute of Human Origins research group.

“The quality of the individual researchers in SHESC, coupled with the department’s breadth and its position at the global center of cultural evolutionary research, made my decision to move here a no brainer,” said Morgan, who joined the group in 2016.

Conference attracts foremost thinkers

Three years ago, a group of researchers, including Boyd and his colleagues, recognized the need to bring together the global and diverse community of researchers interested in evolutionary approaches to culture in humans and other animals. The Cultural Evolution Society was formed as an integrative interdisciplinary community spanning traditional academic boundaries from across the social, psychological and biological sciences, including archaeology, computer science, economics, history, linguistics, mathematics, philosophy and religious studies. 

“Because we are so cultural, the tremendous potential of Darwinian evolutionary thinking was not being fully harnessed to understand the human condition,” said Mathew. “Cultural evolution theory provided the breakthrough and created a space for researchers like myself who wish to explain how complex social behavior like warfare, moral sentiments and prosociality evolved.”

The society also welcomes practitioners from applied fields such as medicine and public health, psychiatry, community development, international relations, the agricultural sciences and the sciences of past and present environmental change.

CES conference banner

The organization will have its second global conference in Tempe on Oct. 22-24, hosting more than 200 attendees from all over the world. 

“We made a special effort to make this a truly multidisciplinary conference,” said Perreault, who is on the organizing committee. “Cultural evolution is the first true unifying theory for the biological and the social sciences, and our program reflects this. As an archaeologist, I’m particularly pleased to see that my discipline will be represented.”

The conference is sponsored in part by ASU’s Global Biosocial Complexity Initiative.

Conference organizers are offering a special one-day registration to the ASU community.

Julie Russ

Assistant director, Institute of Human Origins


image title

One-on-one conversations a powerful marketing tool, ASU researcher finds

Word-of-mouth reviews can have powerful effect, ASU marketing study finds.
October 9, 2018

Good word-of-mouth can offset bad experiences, according to new paper

Some days it feels like everything happens in the world of social media, but an Arizona State University professor has new research on how face-to-face conversations affect our opinions about products and services. It turns out that many consumers are pretty positive.

“If we share opinions on a product or a service, it probably won’t shape our overall opinion after we have a conversation. But if we have conflicting opinions, we were curious about what happens. How do you weigh that?” said Adriana Samper, an associate professor of marketing in the W. P. Carey School of Business, who worked on the project with Daniel Brannon. Brannon received his MBA and PhD at ASU and is now an assistant professor of marketing at Northern Colorado University.

So they tested their theory across four studies measuring people’s views of a product or restaurant visit when they encounter the same or a differing opinion.

“The main finding was that you have this funny positivity effect,” Samper said.

“If I have a good experience and you have a bad experience, I don’t factor your opinion into my likelihood of being satisfied or visiting the restaurant again.

“But if I have a bad experience, and you’re like, 'Oh, I had a great experience,’ then I’m more likely to say, 'Oh, maybe mine was just a bad day.’ We adjust our opinions upward.”

The study, titled “Maybe I Just Got (Un)lucky: One-on-One Conversations and the Malleability of Negative and Positive Consumer Judgments in the Face of a Contrasting Experience,” is published in the Journal of Consumer Research.

The first study, done in the W. P. Carey Behavioral Research Lab, was complex.

“The study design had to make the interaction seem like a natural conversation between two acquaintances, but we still had to have everything controlled in the lab,” Samper said.

It worked this way: Study participants filled out a personal information sheet with a pen. Half of the pens were damaged, so they didn’t work.  

Adriana Samper

After completing several studies in the lab, the participants were asked to give feedback on the lab equipment, including workstations, study materials and the pen.

Then, the participants thought they were proceeding to a new study about conversation styles. They interacted with a “confederate,” an actor posing as another participant.

“The premise was that they discussed being business majors, with the hope that they would develop a rapport,” Samper said.

As they were leaving, the confederate casually asked, “Did you have to rate the pen?” And then they discuss whether the pen worked. There were four conditions: Both had pens that worked, both had pens that didn’t work, the participant’s pen worked and the confederate’s pen didn’t and vice versa.

“What we found was that if they got the bad pen and the confederate said, ‘Mine worked fine,’ they would adjust their perceptions upward and be more likely to be satisfied with it and use the product again or make a purchase,” Samper said.

If the participant’s pen worked and the confederate’s didn’t, it didn’t change the evaluation.

Samper said they purposely chose an inexpensive item like the pen to prove that the effect was not limited to more expensive products such as smartphones or laptops.

The second study also was a “likeable stranger” study done in the lab, only regarding services such as dining. The third study was an online survey in which participants imagined conversations with their best friends about products and services.

The researchers also wanted to measure expectations, so in the fourth study they manipulated expectations by having the participants read an online restaurant review, then imagine going there and having either a good or bad experience and then discussing it with a friend.

Reading a good review first boosted the effect of discounting one’s own bad experience, they found.

“Because they had such positive expectations, when they had a bad experience and the acquaintance had a positive experience, we found a really big boost,” she said.

They were able to reverse the effect by having the participants read a bad review of the restaurant.

“If I expect the place to be bad, and then I have a good experience, and my friend had a bad experience, then I’m like ‘OK, maybe my experience wasn’t that good. Maybe I just got lucky.’ That’s where the title came from,” she said.

“We were able to show that it’s your expectations in combination with someone else’s experience that can shape whether you are more likely to try a product or service again.”

The marketing takeaway for companies is to not just focus on bad online reviews, but also to encourage good word-of-mouth reviews because interpersonal communication is persuasive.

“These conversations appear to be surprisingly common and powerful, as consumers in an increasingly homogenized retail landscape often use the same products and services, and share these experiences with one another,” the paper said.

Top image by Pixabay

Mary Beth Faller

reporter , ASU Now