scientific research and advances

Discovery could open door to frozen preservation of tissues, whole organs

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Researchers in the College of Engineering at Oregon State University have discovered a new approach to “vitrification,” or ice-free cryopreservation, that could ultimately allow a much wider use of extreme cold to preserve tissues and even organs for later use.

The findings were announced today in PLOS ONE, in work supported by the National Science Foundation.

“This could be an important step toward the preservation of more complex tissues and structures,” said Adam Higgins, an associate professor in the OSU School of Chemical, Biological and Environmental Engineering, and expert on medical bioprocessing.

Cryopreservation has already found widespread use in simpler applications such as preserving semen, blood, embryos, plant seeds and some other biological applications. But it is often constrained by the crystallization that occurs when water freezes, which can damage or destroy tissues and cells, Higgins said. This is similar to what happens to some food products when they are stored in a freezer, and lose much of their texture when thawed.

To address this, researchers have used various types of cryoprotectants that help reduce cell damage during the freezing process – among them is ethylene glycol, literally the same compound often used in automobile radiators to prevent freezing.

A problem, Higgins said, is that many of these cryoprotectants are toxic, and can damage or kill the very cells they are trying to protect from the forces of extreme cold.

In the new OSU research, the engineers developed a mathematical model to simulate the freezing process in the presence of cryoprotectants, and identified a way to minimize damage. They found that if cells are initially exposed to a low concentration of cryoprotectant and time is allowed for the cells to swell, then the sample can be vitrified after rapidly adding a high concentration of cryoprotectants. The end result is much less overall toxicity, Higgins said.

The research showed that healthy cell survival following vitrification rose from about 10 percent with a conventional approach to more than 80 percent with the new optimized procedure.

“The biggest single problem and limiting factor in vitrification is cryoprotectant toxicity, and this helps to address that,” Higgins said. “The model should also help us identify less toxic cryoprotectants, and ultimately open the door to vitrification of more complex tissues and perhaps complete organs.”

If that were possible, many more applications of vitrification could be feasible, especially as future progress is made in the rapidly advancing field of tissue regeneration, in which stem cells can be used to grow new tissues or even organs.

Tissues could be made in small amounts and then stored until needed for transplantation. Organs being used for transplants could be routinely preserved until a precise immunological match was found for their use. Conceptually, a person could even grow a spare heart or liver from their own stem cells and preserve it through vitrification in case it was ever needed, Higgins said.

Important applications might also be found in new drug development.

Drug testing is now carried out with traditional cell culture systems or animal models, which in many cases don’t accurately predict the effect of the drug in humans. To address this, researchers are developing “organs-on-a-chip,” or microfluidic chambers that contain human cells cultured under conditions that mimic native tissues or organs.

These new “organ-on-a-chip” systems may be able to more accurately predict drug responses in humans, but to deploy them, cells must be preserved in long-term storage. The new research could help address this by making it possible to store the systems in a vitrified state.

Media Contact: 

Adam Higgins, 541-737-6245

Barriers to health care increase disease, death risk for rural elderly

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A new study of adults ages 85 or older has found that rural residents have significantly higher levels of chronic disease, take more medications, and die several years earlier than their urban counterparts.

The findings were just published in The Journal of Rural Health by researchers from Oregon State University and the Oregon Health & Science University.

The research confirms some of the special challenges facing older populations in rural or remote areas, who often have less access to physicians, long distances to travel for care, sometimes a lower socioeconomic and educational level, and other issues. It also reflects health problems that might have been reduced if they were treated earlier or more aggressively, researchers say.

Data from several different study groups found that rural residents measured significantly higher on the Modified Cumulative Illness Rating Scale, with about an 18 percent higher disease burden.

“It’s been known for some time that health care is harder to access in rural areas, and this helps us better understand the extent of the problem,” said Leah Goeres, a postdoctoral scholar who led the research at the Oregon State University/Oregon Health & Science University College of Pharmacy.

“Many physicians do the best they can in rural areas given the challenges they face,” Goeres said. “But there are fewer physicians, fewer specialists, a higher caseload. Doctors have less support staff and patients have less public transportation. A patient sometimes might need to wait months to see a doctor, and have to drive significant distances. Adverse effects can increase from taking multiple medications.

“These are real barriers to choice and access, and they affect the quality of care that’s available.”

Also worth noting, Goeres said, is that especially in very old populations, illness can lead to more illness and quickly spiral out of control. A patient in an urban setting might receive prompt treatment for a mild ulcer, whereas the same person in a rural setting might have to wait while the condition worsens and may even lead to cancer.

“It’s of particular concern that rural older adults start with more disease burden, which significantly increased over the next five years, but the average number of medications they used decreased over the same time period,” said David Lee, an assistant professor in the OSU College of Pharmacy who oversaw the research.

“This may be due to difficulty accessing health care, leading to more disease burden over time, yet less use of medications,” Lee said. “The opposite trends are seen in urban older adults.”

This research was done in Oregon with three cohorts of older adults, one rural and two urban, and 296 people altogether. It was supported by the Oregon Alzheimer’s Disease Tax Checkoff Fund and the National Institutes of Health.

The findings of the new study include:

  • The rural population of Oregon contains a greater proportion of older adults than the urban population.
  • The use of many medications can be especially risky for people in their 80s and 90s, leading to a concern called “polypharmacy” when a person takes five or more medications.
  • Rural participants were found to use an average of 5.5 medications, compared to 3.7 for urban participants.
  • At baseline measurements, valuable medications to aid bone mineralization were often used less in rural populations, but pain-killing opioids were used more often.
  • Medication use for high blood pressure went up significantly over time for rural populations, but not urban ones, in which their use had already been higher.  
  • The rate of disease accumulation was significant in the rural cohort, and negligible in their urban counterparts.
  • The median survival time of the rural cohort was 3.5 years, compared to 7.1 years for the urban older adults.
  • Risk factors of chronic diseases were low education, poor socioeconomic status, a history of chronic disease, being female, and older age. These factors are associated with a typical rural population.
  • Living with someone, and/or having a large social network are protective factors against chronic disease, and may be more common in an urban or suburban population.
  • Both urban and rural residents used a large number of over-the-counter agents, including vitamins, minerals and herbal supplements.

Increased access to health care, health education, increased supervision from clinicians, and better management of both prescription and over-the-counter medications could all be of value in helping rural residents to live longer and healthier livers, the researchers said in their conclusion.

Media Contact: 

David Lee, 503-494-2258

OSU applying to feds for permission to conduct industrial hemp research

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Faculty in the Oregon State University College of Agricultural Sciences have submitted an application to the federal Drug Enforcement Administration seeking permission to conduct research on industrial hemp.

OSU faculty members believe there is interest within Oregon for industrial hemp production and related research, as well as potential to promote the crop’s agricultural and economic opportunities.

Jay Noller, head of the crop and soil science department in the College of Agricultural Sciences at OSU, said the university hopes to secure approval from the DEA and the Oregon Department of Agriculture to begin approved industrial hemp research trials for the 2016 growing season. The research likely would focus on learning more about the crop’s productivity, yield and growing conditions in western Oregon.

“We still need to secure funding for the research once the other hurdles are cleared,” Noller said. OSU expects that the results of peer-reviewed research regarding industrial hemp will be available in three to five years and that research planned over that time frame will require as much as $2.5 million in funding.

The growing and distribution of industrial hemp is regulated by the federal Controlled Substances Act, according to Steve Clark, OSU vice president for University Relations and Marketing. That act precludes Oregon State faculty from performing research that involves the possession, use, or distribution of hemp – unless such research is in compliance with already established federal guidelines.

“Thanks to the leaders of the Oregon Congressional delegation, the federal 2014 Farm Bill provided important authority regarding hemp research,” Clark said. “A provision in the bill enables higher education institutions to conduct industrial hemp research if the institution is located in a state in which industrial hemp production is legal.”

Industrial hemp has many uses, proponents say, including paper, textiles, biodegradable plastics, fuel, and health and food products. It is a fast-growing plant that requires few pesticides, and it potentially could lead to replacing some environmentally harmful products.

Clark said the university’s decision to seek state and federal approval to conduct industrial hemp research will not extend to research related to the cultivation or propagation of marijuana.

Media Contact: 

Steve Clark, 541-737-3808, steve.clark@oregonstate.edu


Jay Noller, 54-737-6187, jay.noller@oregonstate.edu

Storage advance may boost solar thermal energy potential

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Engineers at Oregon State University have identified a new approach for the storage of concentrated solar thermal energy, to reduce its cost and make it more practical for wider use.

The advance is based on a new innovation with thermochemical storage, in which chemical transformation is used in repeated cycles to hold heat, use it to drive turbines, and then be re-heated to continue the cycle. Most commonly this might be done over a 24-hour period, with variable levels of solar-powered electricity available at any time of day, as dictated by demand.

The findings have been published in ChemSusChem, a professional journal covering sustainable chemistry. The work was supported by the SunShot Initiative of the U.S. Department of Energy, and done in collaboration with researchers at the University of Florida.

Conceptually, all of the energy produced could be stored indefinitely and used later when the electricity is most needed. Alternatively, some energy could be used immediately and the rest stored for later use.

Storage of this type helps to solve one of the key factors limiting the wider use of solar energy – by eliminating the need to use the electricity immediately. The underlying power source is based on production that varies enormously, not just night and day, but some days, or times of day, that solar intensity is more or less powerful. Many alternative energy systems are constrained by this lack of dependability and consistent energy flow.

Solar thermal electricity has been of considerable interest because of its potential to lower costs. In contrast to conventional solar photovoltaic cells that produce electricity directly from sunlight, solar thermal generation of energy is developed as a large power plant in which acres of mirrors precisely reflect sunlight onto a solar receiver. That energy has been used to heat a fluid that in turn drives a turbine to produce electricity.

Such technology is appealing because it’s safe, long-lasting, friendly to the environment and produces no greenhouse gas emissions. Cost, dependability and efficiency have been the primary constraints.

“With the compounds we’re studying, there’s significant potential to lower costs and increase efficiency,” said Nick AuYeung, an assistant professor of chemical engineering in the OSU College of Engineering, corresponding author on this study, and an expert in novel applications and use of sustainable energy.

“In these types of systems, energy efficiency is closely related to use of the highest temperatures possible,” AuYeung said. “The molten salts now being used to store solar thermal energy can only work at about 600 degrees centigrade, and also require large containers and corrosive materials. The compound we’re studying can be used at up to 1,200 degrees, and might be twice as efficient as existing systems.

“This has the potential for a real breakthrough in energy storage,” he said.

According to AuYeung, thermochemical storage resembles a battery, in which chemical bonds are used to store and release energy – but in this case, the transfer is based on heat, not electricity.

The system hinges on the reversible decomposition of strontium carbonate into strontium oxide and carbon dioxide, which consumes thermal energy. During discharge, the recombination of strontium oxide and carbon dioxide releases the stored heat. These materials are nonflammable, readily available and environmentally safe.

In comparison to existing approaches, the new system could also allow a 10-fold increase in energy density – it’s physically much smaller and would be cheaper to build.

The proposed system would work at such high temperatures that it could first be used to directly heat air which would drive a turbine to produce electricity, and then residual heat could be used to make steam to drive yet another turbine.

In laboratory tests, one concern arose when the energy storage capacity of the process declined after 45 heating and cooling cycles, due to some changes in the underlying materials. Further research will be needed to identify ways to reprocess the materials or significantly extend the number of cycles that could be performed before any reprocessing was needed, AuYeung said.

Other refinements may also be necessary to test the system at larger scales and resolve issues such as thermal shocks, he said, before a prototype could be ready for testing at a national laboratory.

Media Contact: 

Nick AuYeung, 541-737-4600

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Thermochemical energy
Thermal energy storage

Obese people need more vitamin E, but actually get less

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A recent study suggests that obese people with metabolic syndrome face an unexpected quandary when it comes to vitamin E – they need more than normal levels of the vitamin because their weight and other problems are causing increased oxidative stress, but those same problems actually cause their effective use of vitamin E to be reduced.

As a result, experts in the Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University say that a huge number of Americans may be chronically deficient in vitamin E, which could compound the wide range of diseases known to be associated with metabolic syndrome, including heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease and cancer.

Metabolic syndrome affects more than one out of every three adults in the U.S. It is characterized in people who have at least three of five common issues that raise health concerns – excess abdominal fat, high blood pressure, low “good” cholesterol, and/or high levels of blood sugar and triglycerides.

Some of the findings of this study are counterintuitive, the researchers said, because vitamin E is a fat soluble micronutrient and, in theory, should be available at increased levels in people who are overweight and eat large amounts of fatty foods.

However, a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that even though circulating vitamin E in the bloodstream may be high, in obese people this essential micronutrient is not finding its way into tissues where it is most needed.

“Vitamin E is associated with lipids, or the fats found in the blood, but it’s mostly just a micronutrient that’s going along for the ride,” said Maret Traber, a professor in the College of Public Health and Human Sciences at OSU, and a principal investigator in the Linus Pauling Institute.

“What we found was that tissues of obese people are rejecting intake of some of these lipids because they already have enough fat,” Traber said. “In the process they also reject the associated vitamin E. So even though the tissues are facing serious oxidative stress, the delivery of vitamin E to them is being impaired, and they are not getting enough of this important micronutrient.”

Fat generates oxidants that increase metabolic stress, Traber said. Vitamin E, along with vitamin C and some other antioxidants, are natural dietary defenses against this problem. However, millions of Americans – more than 92 percent by some measures – eat a diet deficient in vitamin E, often about half the desired amount. It’s found at highest levels in some foods such as nuts, seeds, and olive oil.

“Another concern is that when people try to lose weight, often the first thing they do is limit their fat intake,” Traber said. “This may make sense if you are trying to reduce calories, but fat is the most common source of vitamin E in our diets, so that approach to weight loss can sometimes actually worsen a nutrient deficiency.”

A reasonable approach, Traber said, would be to try to eat a balanced and healthy diet, even if attempting to lose weight, while also taking a daily multivitamin that includes 100 percent of the recommended daily allowance of vitamin E, which is 15 milligrams per day. It’s also important to eat some food containing at least a little fat when taking a supplement, because otherwise this fat-soluble vitamin – in the form found in most dietary supplements – will not be well-absorbed.

In this study, the researchers made their findings with a double-blind study of adults, some of whom were healthy and others with metabolic syndrome. The authors concluded that its findings support higher dietary requirements of vitamin E for adults with metabolic syndrome.

This work was done in collaboration with researchers at The Ohio State University, with support from the National Dairy Council.


Maret Traber, 541-737-7977

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Olive oil
Source of vitamin E

“Spring-mass” technology heralds the future of walking robots

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A study by engineers at Oregon State University suggests that they have achieved the most realistic robotic implementation of human walking dynamics that has ever been done, which may ultimately allow human-like versatility and performance.

The system is based on a concept called “spring-mass” walking that was theorized less than a decade ago, and combines passive dynamics of a mechanical system with computer control. It provides the ability to blindly react to rough terrain, maintain balance, retain an efficiency of motion and essentially walk like humans do.

As such, this approach to robots that can walk and run like humans opens the door to entire new industries, jobs and mechanized systems that do not today exist.

The findings on spring-mass walking have been reported for the first time in IEEE Transactions on Robotics, by engineers from OSU and Germany. The work has been supported by the National Science Foundation, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the Human Frontier Science Program.

The technologies developed at OSU have evolved from intense studies of both human and animal walking and running, to learn how animals achieve a fluidity of motion with a high degree of energy efficiency. Animals combine a sensory input from nerves, vision, muscles and tendons to create locomotion that researchers have now translated into a working robotic system.

The system is also efficient. Studies done with their ATRIAS robot model, which incorporates the spring-mass theory, showed that it’s three times more energy-efficient than any other human-sized bipedal robots.

“I’m confident that this is the future of legged robotic locomotion,” said Jonathan Hurst, an OSU professor of mechanical engineering and director of the Dynamic Robotics Laboratory in the OSU College of Engineering.

“We’ve basically demonstrated the fundamental science of how humans walk,” he said.

“Other robotic approaches may have legs and motion, but don’t really capture the underlying physics,” he said. “We’re convinced this is the approach on which the most successful legged robots will work. It retains the substance and science of legged animal locomotion, and animals demonstrate performance that far exceeds any other approach we’ve seen. This is the way to go.”

The current technology, Hurst said, is still a crude illustration of what the future may hold. When further refined and perfected, walking and running robots may work in the armed forces. As fire fighters they may charge upstairs in burning buildings to save lives. They could play new roles in factories or do ordinary household chores.

Aspects of the locomotion technology may also assist people with disabilities, the researchers said.

“Robots are already used for gait training, and we see the first commercial exoskeletons on the market,” said Daniel Renjewski, the lead author on the study with the Technische Universitat Munchen. “However, only now do we have an idea how human-like walking works in a robot. This enables us to build an entirely new class of wearable robots and prostheses that could allow the user to regain a natural walking gait.” 

There are few limits to this technology, the researchers said.

“It will be some time, but we think legged robots will enable integration of robots into our daily lives,” Hurst said. “We know it is possible, based on the example of animals. So it’s inevitable that we will solve the problem with robots. This could become as big as the automotive industry.”

And much of this, the scientists said, will be based on the “spring-mass” concept, which animals have been perfecting through millions of years of evolution. 

The robots being constructed at OSU were designed to mimic this “spring-legged” action of bipedal animals. With minor variations, muscles, tendons and bones form a structure that exhibits most of the required behavior, and conscious control just nudges things a little to keep it going in the right direction. The effort is smooth and elastic, and once understood, can be simulated in walking robots by springs and other technology.

ATRIAS, the human-sized robot most recently created at OSU, has six electric motors powered by a lithium polymer battery about the size of a half-gallon of milk, which is substantially smaller than the power packs of some other mobile robots. It can take impacts and retain its balance. It can walk over rough and bumpy terrain.

Researchers said in their new study that this technology “has the potential to enhance legged robots to ultimately match the efficiency, agility and robustness of animals over a wide variety of terrain.”

In continued research, work will be done to improve steering, efficiency, leg configuration, inertial actuation, robust operation, external sensing, transmissions and actuators, and other technologies.

Other collaborators in the development of this technology have included Jessy Grizzle at the University of Michigan and Hartmut Geyer at Carnegie Mellon University. Scientific work on the motion of animals was done with Monica Daley at the Royal Veterinary College, which guided the robot’s development.

Media Contact: 

Jonathan Hurst, 541-737-7010

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A YouTube video is available of the walking robot: http://bit.ly/1HQKqOZ

Walking robot
Walking robot

Vitamin D, xanthohumol may offer new approach to obesity epidemic

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A growing body of evidence suggests that two natural compounds, vitamin D and xanthohumol, have the ability to address imbalances in gut microbiota that may set the stage for obesity and metabolic syndrome - problems that affect about one out of every three adults in the United States.

To explore and identify the specific mechanisms by which these compounds have beneficial effects, researchers in the Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University have received a new five-year, $2.64 million grant from the National Institutes of Health.

The possible payoff of this research, they say, may be an entirely new way to reduce or prevent some of the major diseases that are killing millions of people every year, such as heart disease and type-2 diabetes.

The new approach would attempt, using high dose supplementation, to prevent disease from developing, instead of treating it after the fact.

“The benefits of xanthohumol and vitamin D have been clearly shown in laboratory studies to reduce weight gain and improve gut barrier defenses,” said Adrian Gombart, an associate professor of biochemistry and biophysics in the OSU College of Science, and a principal investigator with the Linus Pauling Institute. “These compounds appear to activate nuclear receptors and pathways that may affect microbe composition, and in the process reduce the damage from metabolic syndrome.”

One study published by OSU researchers two years ago in the Journal of Biological Chemistry found that rats given xanthohumol supplements, which are made from hops, had a 14 percent reduction in weight gain, a 25 percent reduction in plasma fasting glucose, and improved lipid metabolism, compared to a control group of rats that ate the same amount of food. They had a higher rate of fatty acid oxidation and energy metabolism. In simple terms, they burned more fat.

In other studies, higher levels of vitamin D status in humans have been associated with reduced risk of obesity, metabolic syndrome, cancer, infectious diseases, autoimmune diseases, and other health problems.

Other lead investigators on this research include Claudia Maier, an OSU professor of chemistry; Fred Stevens, a professor in the OSU College of Pharmacy and also a principal investigator with the Linus Pauling Institute; and Balz Frei, a distinguished professor of biochemistry and biophysics, and director of the Linus Pauling Institute.

The OSU researchers believe some of the benefits of vitamin D and/or xanthohumol may be a strong increase in the expression of the cathelicidin antimicrobial peptide, or CAMP gene. The hypothesis to be tested in this research, using animal models, is that higher CAMP levels improve gut epithelial barrier function, reduce inflammation, modify gut microbiota and in the process reduce problems with obesity and metabolic syndrome.

“Some of the benefits we’re seeing are fairly clear and dramatic, and we need to better understand the mechanisms that cause them,” Stevens said.

The compounds may also affect liver function, shutting down metabolic pathways that produce fat and glucose, he said.

Vitamin D can be obtained through either the diet or produced by the skin, with adequate exposure to sunshine. Millions of people who live in temperate zones around the world, however, have been found to have inadequate levels of this vitamin, but this can be corrected by taking a supplement.

Xanthohumol, a flavonoid, is also a natural compound and is found in the hops used to make beer. Researchers point out, however, that the levels of xanthohumol being used in this research greatly exceed any amount that could be obtained by drinking beer.

Direct health care costs arising from obesity and related disorders accounts for almost 10 percent of U.S. health care expenditures each year, the researchers said. The health care costs of diabetes alone were estimated in the U.S. at $176 billion in 2012, and it’s one of the leading causes of death in the nation.

Media Contact: 

Adrian Gombart, 541-737-8018

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Xanthohumol in hops

Vitamin D
Vitamin D in milk

Discovery about protein structure opens window on basic life process

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Biochemists at Oregon State University have made a fundamental discovery about protein structure that sheds new light on how proteins fold, which is one of the most basic processes of life.

The findings, announced today in Science Advances, will help scientists better understand some important changes that proteins undergo. It had previously been thought to be impossible to characterize these changes, in part because the transitions are so incredibly small and fleeting.

The changes relate to how proteins convert from one observable shape to another – and they happen in less than one trillionth of a second, in molecules that are less than one millionth of an inch in size. It had been known that these changes must happen and they have been simulated by computers, but prior to this no one had ever observed how they happen.

Now they have, in part by recognizing the value of certain data collected by many researchers over the last two decades.

“Actual evidence of these transitions was hiding in plain sight all this time,” said Andrew Brereton, an OSU doctoral student and lead author on this study. “We just didn’t know what to look for, and didn’t understand how significant it was.”

All proteins start as linear chains of building blocks and then quickly fold to their proper shape, going through many high-energy transitions along the way. Proper folding is essential to the biological function of proteins, and when it doesn’t happen correctly, protein folding diseases can be one result – such as Alzheimer’s disease, Lou Gehrig’s disease, amyloidosis and others.

Proteins themselves are a critical component of life, the workhorses of biology. They are comparatively large, specialty molecules that can do everything from perceiving light to changing shape and making muscles function. Even the process of thinking involves proteins at the end of one neuron passing a message to different proteins on the next neuron.

A powerful tool called X-ray crystallography has been able to capture images of proteins in their more stable shapes, but what was unknown is exactly how they got from one stable form to another. The changes in shape that are needed for those transitions are fleeting and involve distortions in the molecules that are extreme and difficult to predict.

What the OSU researchers discovered, however, is that the stable shapes adopted by a few proteins actually contained some parts that were trapped in the act of changing shape, conceptually similar to finding mosquitos trapped in amber.

“We discovered that some proteins were holding single building blocks in shapes that were supposed to be impossible to find in a stable form,” said Andrew Karplus, the corresponding author on the study and a distinguished professor of biochemistry and biophysics in the OSU College of Science.

“Apparently about one building block out of every 6,000 gets trapped in a highly unlikely shape that is like a single frame in a movie,” Karplus said. “The set of these trapped residues taken together have basically allowed us to make a movie that shows how these special protein shape changes occur. And what this movie shows has real differences from what the computer simulations had predicted.”

As with most fundamental discoveries, the researchers said, the full value of the findings may take years or decades to play out.

What is clear is that proteins are key to some of the most fundamental processes of life, and this new information has revealed the first direct views of specific details of one aspect of protein folding in a way that had not been considered possible.

“In the 1870s an English photographer named Eadweard Muybridge made some famous photographs that settled a debate which had been going on for decades, about whether horses as they run actually lift all four feet off the ground at the same time,” Karplus said.

“His novel series of stop-action photos proved that they did, and opened up a whole new understanding of animal locomotion,” he said. “In a similar way, our results change the way researchers can now look at one of the ways proteins change shape, and that’s a pretty fundamental part of life.”

Media Contact: 

Andrew Karplus, 541-737-3200

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Protein structural changes

Protein folding

Instants in time
Stop-action of running horse

Ocean protection gaining momentum, but still lags progress made on land

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Extraordinary progress in the past decade has brought 1.6 percent of the world’s ocean to a category of “strongly protected,” researchers say in a new analysis, but the accomplishments are still far behind those that have been achieved on land – and those that are urgently needed.

In a report published today in the journal Science, researchers from Oregon State University point out that numerous international policy agreements call for protecting 10 percent of coastal and marine areas by 2020, while some conservation organizations and most scientists say 20-50 percent of ocean protection is needed.

The science of marine protected areas is now mature and extensive, the researchers say, and the multiple threats facing the Earth’s ocean from overfishing, climate change, loss of biodiversity, acidification and many other issues warrant more accelerated, science-driven action.

“The world is well on its way to meeting targets set for protection on land, but far from its goals for ocean protection,” said Jane Lubchenco, who is the OSU University Distinguished Professor and Adviser in Marine Studies, former NOAA administrator, U.S. Science Envoy for the Ocean and a marine biologist in the OSU College of Science.

“We’ve seen an acceleration of progress in recent years, and that’s good,” Lubchenco said. “But the politics of ocean protection are too often disconnected from the science and knowledge that supports it, and there are many things we can do to help bridge that gap.”

There have been significant and recent success stories, the scientists pointed out.

Earlier this month three new, large and fully protected areas were announced at the United Nations and at the Our Ocean conference, which encompass waters around Chile and New Zealand. Last year, the U.S. expanded by six times the Pacific Remote Island Marine National Monument; and the United Kingdom created what will be the world’s largest fully protected marine area, the Pitcairn Islands Marine Reserve.

“Even if we lump together all protection categories, however, only 3.5 percent of the ocean has any form of protection,” said Kirsten Grorud-Colvert, an OSU assistant professor of research and director of the Science of Marine Reserves Project.

“In contrast, the target to protect 17 percent of the terrestrial part of the planet is expected to be met by 2020, and it already stands at 15 percent,” Grorud-Colverts said. “There is so much more that needs to be done to protect the ocean, and we have the scientific knowledge to inform the decision-making.”

Marine protection can range from “lightly protected,” which allows some protection but significant extractive activity, to the “full” protection usually identified as marine reserves. Such areas, covering an almost undectable total area of the ocean a decade ago, are rapidly gaining attention as their social, economic, and environmental benefits become more clear.

To further speed that progress, the OSU researchers highlighted seven key findings. They include:

  • Full protection works. Fully protected and effectively enforced areas generally result in significant increases in biomass, size of individuals and diversity inside a reserve. Those benefits in turn often spill over to adjacent areas outside the reserve.
  • Habitats are connected. Many species move among habitats during their life cycles, so a range of protected areas will aid in protecting biodiversity and enhancing benefits inside and outside the reserve.
  • Networks allow fishing. A network, or set of reserves that are connected by the movement of juveniles and adults, can provide many of the benefits of a single large area, while still allowing fishing between the reserves.
  • Engaging users usually improves outcomes. Fishers, managers, conservation advocates, and scientists can work together to address both conservation and fishery goals.
  • Reserves can enhance resilience. Large and strategically placed reserves can assist in adapting to environmental and climatic changes.
  • Planning saves money. Smart planning can reduce costs of creating reserves and increase their economic benefits, in some cases making them more valuable than before the reserve was created.
  • Ecosystems matter. Complementary efforts to ensure sustainable uses outside a reserve are needed, and should be integrated to ensure viable levels of activities such as fishing, aquaculture, energy generation, recreation and marine protection. The goal is to use the ocean without using it up.

The scientists said that policy improvements can be aided by embracing more options, bringing more users into the discussion, and changing incentives so that economic and social impacts can be minimized. New enforcement technologies can also help, along with integrating reserves with other management measures.

“An accelerated pace of protection will be needed for the ocean to provide the full range of benefits people want and need,” the scientists wrote in their conclusion.

Media Contact: 

Jane Lubchenco, 541-737-5337

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Coral reefs

Coral reef


Multiple species

Easter Island


Butterfly fish

Butterfly fish

Methodology could lead to more sustainable manufacturing systems

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Engineers at Oregon State University have developed a new “sustainable development methodology” to help address a social and regulatory demand for manufacturing processes that more effectively consider their economic, environmental and social impacts.

The work was recently published in the Journal of Cleaner Production. It outlines a way to help designers and manufacturing engineers carefully consider all the ramifications of their design decisions, and to evaluate the possible different ways that a product could be built – before it ever hits the assembly line.

“There’s a lot of demand by consumers, workers and companies who want to make progress on the sustainability of products and manufacturing processes,” said Karl Haapala, an associate professor in the OSU College of Engineering.

“There’s usually more than one way to build a part or product,” he said. “With careful analysis we can identify ways to determine which approach may have the least environmental impact, lowest cost, least waste, or other advantages that make it preferable to a different approach.”

This movement, researchers say, evolved more than 20 years ago from an international discussion at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, which raised concerns about the growing scarcity of water, depletion of non-renewable sources of energy, human health problems in the workplace, and other issues that can be linked to unsustainable production patterns in industry.

The challenge, experts say, is how to consider the well-being of employees, customers, and the community, all while producing a quality product and staying economically competitive. It isn’t easy, and comprehensive models that assess all aspects of sustainability are almost nonexistent.

“With current tools you can analyze various aspects of an operation one at a time, like the advantages of different materials, transportation modes, energy used, or other factors,” Haapala said. “It’s much more difficult to consider all of them simultaneously and come out with a reasonable conclusion about which approach is best.”

To aid that effort, OSU researchers created a new methodology that incorporates unit process modeling and an existing technique called life-cycle inventory. This allowed them to quantify a selected set of sustainability metrics, and ask real-world questions. Should the product use a different material? Would running the production line faster be worth the extra energy used or impact on worker health and safety? Which approach might lead to injuries and more lost work? How can scrap and waste be minimized? Which design alternative will generate the least greenhouse gas emissions?

To illustrate this approach in the study, the researchers used three hypothetical “bevel gear” alternatives, a common part produced in the aircraft and automotive industry. Their six-step system considered energy consumption, water use, effluent discharge, occupational health and safety, operating cost, and other factors to evaluate the use of different materials and manufacturing processes  – and ultimately concluded through mathematical modeling which of three possible designs was the most sustainable.

"When you make decisions about what is best, you may make value judgements about what aspect of sustainability is most important to you,” Haapala said. “But the modeling results have the potential to assist designers in performing those evaluations and in understanding the tradeoffs alongside other aspects of the manufacturing process.”

This work was supported by the Boeing Company and the Oregon Metals Initiative.

This assessment approach, when further researched and tested, should be applicable to a wide range of products during the design decision-making process, researchers said in the study.

Media Contact: 

Karl Haapala, 541-737-3122

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Solid steel bevel gear

Different gear types
Mechanically joined bevel gear