OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

scientific research and advances

Curiosity can predict employees’ ability to creatively solve problems, research shows

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Employers who are looking to hire creative problem-solvers should consider candidates with strong curiosity traits, and personality tests may be one way to tease out those traits in prospective employees, new research from Oregon State University shows.

People who showed strong curiosity traits on personality tests performed better on creative tasks and those with a strong diversive curiosity trait, or curiosity associated with the interest in exploring unfamiliar topics and learning something new, were more likely to come up with creative solutions to a problem, the researchers found.

The findings contribute to a growing body of evidence suggesting that testing for curiosity traits may be useful for employers, especially those seeking to fill complex jobs, said Jay Hardy, an assistant professor in OSU’s College of Business and lead author of the study.

As workplaces evolve and jobs become increasingly dynamic and complex, having employees who can adapt to changing environments and learn new skills is becoming more and more valuable to organizations’ success, he said.

“But if you look at job descriptions today, employers often say they are looking for curious and creative employees, but they are not selecting candidates based on those traits,” said Hardy, whose research focuses on employee training and development. “This research suggests it may be useful for employers to measure curiosity, and, in particular, diversive curiosity, when hiring new employees.”

The findings were published recently in the journal Personality and Individual Differences. Co-authors are Alisha Ness of University of Oklahoma and Jensen Mecca of Shaker Consulting Group.

Past research has shown that curiosity is a strong predictor of a person’s ability to creatively solve problems in the workplace. But questions remain about how, why and when curiosity affects the creative process, Hardy said. The latest research helps to pinpoint the type of curiosity that best aids creative problem-solving.

Diversive curiosity is a trait well-suited to early stage problem-solving because it leads to gathering a large amount of information relevant to the problem. That information can be used to generate and evaluate new ideas in later stages of creative problem-solving. Diversive curiosity tends to be a more positive force.

On the other hand, people with strong specific curiosity traits, or the curiosity that reduces anxiety and fills gaps in understanding, tend to be more problem-focused. Specific curiosity tends to be a negative force.

For the study, researchers asked 122 undergraduate college students, to take personality tests that measured their diversive and specific curiosity traits.

They then asked the students to complete an experimental task involving the development of a marketing plan for a retailer. Researchers evaluated the students’ early-stage and late-stage creative problem-solving processes, including the number of ideas generated. The students’ ideas were also evaluated based on their quality and originality.

The findings indicated that the participants’ diversive curiosity scores related strongly to their performance scores. Those with stronger diversive curiosity traits spent more time and developed more ideas in the early stages of the task. Stronger specific curiosity traits did not significantly relate to the participants’ idea generation and did not affect their creative performance.

“Because it has a distinct effect, diversive curiosity can add something extra in a prospective employee,” Hardy said. “Specific curiosity does matter, but the diversive piece is useful in more abstract ways.”

Another important finding of the research, Hardy noted, is that participants’ behavior in the information-seeking stage of the task was key to explaining differences in creative outcome. For people who are not creative naturally, a lack of natural diversive curiosity may be overcome, in part, by simply spending more time asking questions and reviewing materials at the early stages of a task, he said.

“Creativity to a degree is a trainable skill,” he said. “It is a skill that is developed and can be improved. The more of it you do, the better you will get at it.”

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Jay Hardy, 541-737-3016, jay.hardy@oregonstate.edu

Chronically ill women underusing online self-care resources, study shows

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Barriers to internet use may be preventing chronically ill middle-aged and older women from being as healthy as they otherwise could be, new research from Oregon State University suggests.

The study conducted by researchers from the OSU College of Public Health and Human Sciences and the University of Georgia analyzed data from hundreds of women age 44 and older with at least one chronic condition and found that 35 percent of them didn’t use the internet at all. Among those who did, fewer than half used it to learn from the experiences of other chronic-disease patients; fewer than 20 percent took part in online discussions regarding their conditions.

Self-care, including the use of online resources, is an important component in managing chronic illnesses such as heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes, arthritis, asthma, high blood pressure, emphysema, chronic bronchitis, depression and anxiety. Effective management of these types of conditions delays or prevents them from becoming debilitating, maintaining quality of life for the patient and saving health care dollars.

The research showed the potential for improved condition management by getting online resources into the hands of more patients.

“We want people to be able to optimize their health,” said researcher Carolyn Mendez-Luck, an assistant professor in the School of Social and Behavioral Health Sciences at OSU.

Among the 418 women participating in the study, internet use for self-care varied depending on factors that included age, the specific condition or conditions a patient had, education level and ethnic background.

“It really seemed to be the lower-resourced individuals who weren’t using the internet and thus online resources,” Mendez-Luck said. “If you’re older, if you’re a member of a minority group, if you’re less educated, if you’re not working, all of those things work against you and impede your use of the internet; that’s what this research suggests.”

The women in the study all completed, via telephone, the National Council on Aging Chronic Care Survey and all had one or more chronic conditions. Support for the research also came from Atlantic Philanthropies, the California Healthcare Foundation, and the Center for Community Health Development. Results were recently published in the Journal of Women’s Health.

The study featured two parts. The first analyzed data in terms of sociodemographics, disease types and healthcare management associated with internet use, and the second focused on the 251 internet-using women to identify the online self- care resources they use and for what purposes.

About 31 percent of the women in the study were 65 and older; 30 percent had three or more chronic conditions; and 65 percent said they used the internet.

“A significantly larger proportion of older women reported multiple chronic conditions, and a significantly smaller proportion of older women reported using the internet or relying on it for help or support,” Mendez-Luck said. “A significantly larger proportion of non-internet users reported needing help learning what to do to manage their health conditions and needing help learning how to care for their health conditions.”

Mendez-Luck says understanding how women with chronic conditions use the internet, or why they don’t, can inform targeted efforts to increase internet availability, to educate patients about online resources, and to tailor internet-based materials to self-care needs. Women tend to live longer than men and also tend to be particularly affected by chronic diseases.

“The number of people living with chronic conditions for longer durations is growing,” Mendez-Luck said. “Complex patients, especially individuals with multiple chronic conditions, present enormous challenges to healthcare providers and a significant financial burden to the healthcare system. This situation is likely to become more critical as the number of Americans living to advanced ages increases in the next few decades.”

Self-care behaviors are important in managing chronic disease, Mendez-Luck noted. Without effective management, chronic conditions can diminish individuals’ capacity to care for themselves as well as thwart caregivers’ efforts.

“We discovered that a significantly larger proportion of internet-using women with diabetes and depression reported needing help in both learning what to do to manage their health conditions and how to better care for their health, compared with women with other health conditions,” Mendez-Luck said. “This finding highlights the notion that internet resources are not a one size fits all situation; it really does depend on the condition.”

Older women represent the chronic-conditions group with the most potential for gains in using online resources for disease self-management.

“There’s an opportunity for sure,” Mendez-Luck said, noting that one method for improvement might be as simple as a physician, nurse or dietitian taking a moment to talk to patients about using the internet and how it can benefit them.

“The fact that older women in general use the internet at lower rates, I think that’s not surprising,” Mendez-Luck said. “We need to give them a chance to get connected to community resources like libraries and senior centers that try to do education to dispel that fear or discomfort older women might have regarding technology. And more research needs to be done to determine how to tailor that online information in a way that meets their needs.”

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Steve Lundeberg, 541-737-4039

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Carolyn Mendez-Luck

Carolyn Mendez-Luck

Bacteria discovery offers possible new means of controlling crop pest

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A bacterium common in insects has been discovered in a plant-parasitic roundworm, opening up the possibility of a new, environmentally friendly way of controlling the crop-damaging pest.

The worm, Pratylenchus penetrans, is one of the “lesion nematodes” -- microscopic animals that deploy their mouths like syringes to extract nutrients from the roots of plants, damaging them in the process. This particular nematode uses more than 150 species as hosts, including mint, raspberry, lily and potato.

The newly discovered bacterium is a strain in the genus Wolbachia, one of the world’s most widespread endosymbionts – organisms that live within other organisms. Wolbachia is present in roughly 60 percent of the globe’s arthropods, among them insects, spiders and crustaceans, and also lives in nematodes that cause illness in humans.

Postdoctoral scholar Amanda Brown in the Oregon State University Department of Integrative Biology was the lead author on the study, and recently accepted an assistant professor position at Texas Tech. Findings were published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Depending on the host species, Wolbachia can be an obligate mutualist – the bacteria and the host need each other for survival – or a reproductive parasite that manipulates the host’s reproductive outcomes in ways that harm the host and benefit the bacteria. Parasitic Wolbachia can cause its host populations to heavily skew toward female.

In the case of the crop-pest nematode, Pratylenchus penetrans, that Brown and her colleagues studied, the bacteria-host relationship appears to not be one of obligate mutualism – many examples of non-infected worms have been found, meaning the worm doesn’t rely on Wolbachia to survive.

But more study is needed to determine the exact nature of the relationship, said Dee Denver, an associate professor in the Department of Integrative Biology in the College of Science.

Whatever the relationship, simply discovering Wolbachia in Pratylenchus penetrans opens up the potential for managing the roundworm’s population via biocontrol rather than environment-damaging fumigants, such as methyl bromide, that are being phased out by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

“We can use what’s already infecting them against them,” Denver said.

Nematode biocontrol would involve releasing Wolbachia-infected worms into farm fields whose worm populations weren’t infected. From there, a couple of situations, both favorable to the crops, might arise:

  •  The bacterium could hinder the worms’ ability to reproduce;
  •  It also might force the worm to devote energy to dealing with the bacterium, effectively distracting it from being as damaging to the crops as it otherwise would be.

Wolbachia is already being used as a biocontrol strategy in Colombia and Brazil, where infected mosquitoes are being released in an effort to control the Zika, dengue and malaria viruses. Mosquitoes are a vector for those diseases, but Wolbachia-infected mosquitoes pass the bacteria to their offspring, who lose their ability to transmit the diseases. Wolbachia also can interfere with the mosquitoes’ ability to reproduce at all.

“We can see where all of that goes and learn from it to help our decision making on how the strategy might get deployed to control the population of plant-parasitic nematodes,” Denver said. “One big thing with nematodes is the load. Many crops have some, but once you get above certain thresholds, fields go down and there are economic losses.”

In addition to the potential for an environmentally safe way to deal with a crop pest, the research is noteworthy for providing genomic evidence that nematodes, not arthropods, were the original Wolbachia hosts. The strain that OSU researchers discovered – known as wPpe – proved to be the earliest diverging Wolbachia, meaning the bacteria adapted to arthropods and then later evolved to reinvade nematodes.

“Were they originally reproductive parasites or play-nice mutualists?” Dee said. “These are outside the range of better-studied Wolbachia, so we don’t know, but we have preliminary data and we think they’re reproductive parasites.”

Another unanswered question: How widespread is Wolbachia among plant-parasitic nematodes?

“There are thousands of nematode species infecting plants,” Denver said. “Wolbachia has always been thought of as an arthropod thing, an insect thing. It was kind of a serendipitous discovery for us. We were sequencing genomes from nematodes for the purpose of understanding nematodes, and the mapping went to Wolbachia.”

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Steve Lundeberg, 541-737-4039

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Pratylenchus penetrans

Pratylenchus penetrans

Repeatedly thinking about work-family conflict linked to health problems

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Thinking over and over again about conflicts between your job and personal life is likely to damage both your mental and physical health, research from Oregon State University suggests.

The study included more than 200 people, with results showing that “repetitive thought” was a pathway between work-family conflict and negative outcomes in six different health categories.

As the term suggests, repetitive thought regarding work-family conflict refers to thinking repeatedly and attentively about the parts of your job and your personal life that clash with each other: for example, that late-afternoon meeting that prevents you from attending your son’s baseball game. It’s a maladaptive coping strategy that impedes daily recovery from stress.

Kelly D. Davis of OSU’s College of Public Health and Human Sciences was the lead author on the project funded by Pennsylvania State University’s Social Science Research Institute and Penn State’s Center for Healthy Aging.

The journal Stress & Health recently published the results.

Davis, an assistant professor in the CPHHS School of Social and Behavioral Health Sciences, says repetitive thought over work-family conflict keeps the stressor active and thus gets in the way of recovery.

The study involved 203 adults ages 24 to 76. Each was in a romantic relationship, and roughly two-thirds had at least one child at home.

Results showed a link between repetitive thought and negative outcomes in the health categories of life satisfaction, positive affect, negative affect, fatigue, perceived health, and health conditions.

Positive affect is the extent to which a person subjectively experiences positive moods, and negative affect is the extent to which someone experiences negative moods. In this study, health conditions referred to a list of 22 conditions or problems, such as stroke or diabetes. Participants were scored based on how many times they answered yes.

In the category of perceived health, participants were asked to rate their health on a five-point scale. 

“The main objective of this study was to test a conceptual model in which repetitive thought explained the association between work-family conflict and health,” Davis said. “There was support for repetitive thought as a mediator in the association between work-family conflict and all six health outcomes.”

Repetitive thought is related to two other types of cognition that also can have adverse effects on health: rumination and worry. Rumination is persistent, redundant thinking that usually looks backward and is associated with depression; worry is also persistent, redundant thinking but tends to look forward and is typically more associated with anxious apprehension.

“Practitioners can assist individuals facing the dual demands of work and family by reducing repetitive thought, and the related issues of worry and rumination,” Davis said.

One technique that can help is mindfulness: intentionally paying attention to the present-moment experience, such as physical sensations, perceptions, affective states, thoughts and imagery, in a nonjudgmental way.

“You stay in the moment and acknowledge what you are feeling, recognize that those are real feelings, and process them, putting things in perspective,” Davis said. “In the hypothetical baseball game example, the person could acknowledge the disappointment and frustration he was feeling as legitimate, honest feelings, and then also think in terms of ‘these meeting conflicts don’t happen that often, there are lots of games left for me to watch my child play, etc.’”

Davis also points out that the burden for coping with work-family conflict shouldn’t fall solely on the employee.

“There needs to be strategies at the organizational level as well as the individual level,” she said. “For example, a business could implement mindfulness training or other strategies in the workplace that make it a more supportive culture, one that recognizes employees have a life outside of work and that sometimes there’s conflict. There can be a good return on investment for businesses for managing work-family stress, because positive experiences and feelings at home can carry over to work and vice versa.”

Work-family conflict is not just a women’s issue or even just a parent’s issue, Davis notes, given the number of workers who are caring for their own mother and/or father.

“Planning ahead and having a backup plan, having a network to support one another, those things make you better able to reduce work-family conflict,” Davis said. “But it shouldn’t just rest on the shoulders of the individual. We need changes in the ways in which organizations treat their employees. We can’t deny the fact that work and family influence one another, so by improving the lives of employees, you get that return on investment with positive work and family lives spilling over onto one another.”

Policy changes are particularly important to lower-income workers, Davis says.

“Not all of us are so fortunate to have backup plans for our family responsibilities to stop us from repetitively thinking about work-family conflict,” she said. “It’s the organizational support and culture that matter most. Knowing there’s a policy you can use without backlash maybe is almost as beneficial as actually using the policy. It’s also important for managers and executives to be modeling that too, going to family events and scheduling time to fit all of their roles.”

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Steve Lundeberg, 541-737-4039

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Kelly Davis

Kelly D. Davis

Immune system uses gut bacteria to control glucose metabolism

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Researchers at Oregon State University and other institutions have discovered an important link between the immune system, gut bacteria and glucose metabolism – a “cross-talk” and interaction that can lead to type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome when not functioning correctly.

The findings, published today in Nature Communications, are one example of how different mammalian systems can affect each other in ways not previously understood.

A better understanding of these systems, researchers say, may lead to new probiotic approaches to diabetes and other diseases.

The research also shows the general importance of proper bacterial functions in the gut and the role of one bacteria in particular – Akkermansia muciniphila -  in helping to regulate glucose metabolism.

This bacteria’s function is so important, scientists say, that it has been conserved through millions of years of evolution to perform a similar function in both mice and humans.

“We’re discovering that in biology there are multiple connections and communications, what we call cross-talk, that are very important in ways we’re just beginning to understand,” said Dr. Natalia Shulzhenko, an assistant professor in the OSU College of Veterinary Medicine, and one of the corresponding authors on this study.

“It’s being made clear by a number of studies that our immune system, in particular, is closely linked to other metabolic functions in ways we never realized. This is still unconventional thinking, and it’s being described as a new field called immunometabolism. Through the process of evolution, mammals, including humans, have developed functional systems that communicate with each other, and microbes are an essential part of that process.”

It had been previously observed that an immune mediator - one type of interferon, or signaling protein called IFN-y – can affect the proper function of glucose metabolism. IFN-y helps fight several pathogens and infections, but a decrease in its levels can lead to improvement in glucose metabolism. However, this actual process has not been understood.

“Before this, no one had a clue exactly how IFN-y affected glucose tolerance,” said Andrey Morgun, an assistant professor in the OSU College of Pharmacy and also a corresponding author on the study. “The involvement of microbes had not really been considered. But with the help of a statistical model and an approach we call a transkingdom network, we were able to pinpoint some likely bacterial candidates.”

The bacteria A. muciniphila, was found to play a critical role in this communication process – in their study, the scientists called it a “missing link.” Research showed that mice specially bred with reduced levels of IFN-y had higher levels of A. muciniphila, and significantly improved glucose tolerance. When IFN-y levels increased, A. muciniphila levels declined, and glucose tolerance was reduced.

Similar observations were also made in humans. It’s been observed, for instance, that athletes who are extremely fit have high levels of the gut bacteria A. muciniphila, which is a mucus-degrading bacteria. The research makes clear that two systems once believed to be functionally separate – immunity and glucose metabolism – are, in fact, closely linked, and the bridge can be provided by gut bacteria.

There’s probably more than one bacteria involved in this process of communication and metabolic control, researchers said. The gut harbors literally thousands of microbes that appear to function almost as a metabolically active organ, emphasizing the critical importance of gut bacterial health.

Bacteria-mediated communication, of course, is just one part of complex human systems – issues such as proper diet, exercise, and appropriate weight control are all still important, the researchers said.

This research was supported by the National Institutes of Health. Other collaborating researchers were from the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil, University of North Carolina, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and Duke University Medical Center. Co-first authors were Renee Greer of the OSU College of Veterinary Medicine and Xiaoxi Dong of the OSU College of Pharmacy.

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Dr. Natalia Shulzhenko, 541-737-1051

natalia.shulzhenko@oregonstate.edu

The golden drool: Study finds treasure trove of info in saliva of foraging bears

CORVALLIS, Ore. – The rivers and streams of Alaska are littered in the summer and fall with carcasses of tens of thousands of salmon that not only provide a smorgasbord for hungry brown bears but are also the newest database in the arsenal of wildlife biologists.

A new study, published this week in the journal PLOS ONE, documents the ability of researchers to gather DNA from residual saliva on partially consumed salmon to the point that they can even identify individual bears from the genetic samples. The discovery should provide a significant boost to research on the population and health of brown bears, which can grow to a size of 1,500 pounds. 

“In the past, population estimates have been largely based on visual observations and on the analysis of fecal samples,” said Taal Levi, an assistant professor of fisheries and wildlife at Oregon State University and co-author on the study. “We found that using bear saliva is not only easier and cheaper as a research tool, it is more effective.”

In their study, the researchers examined 156 partially consumed salmon carcasses of lakeshore-spawning sockeye salmon in the Chilkoot watershed and stream-spawning chum salmon at Herman Creek in the Klehini watershed – both near Haines, Alaska. They also swabbed a total of 272 brown bear “scats,” or fecal samples, from those same locations. 

They found that the saliva collected from the salmon carcasses delivered a higher rate of genotyping success, allowing the researchers to identify individual bears more accurately and quickly than the fecal samples, and required significantly less labor.

“Bears love salmon because they are such a rich food source, and fortunately for us, the way they consume them lends itself to genetic monitoring,” said the study’s lead author, Rachel Wheat, who conducted the research as part of her doctoral dissertation at the University of California, Santa Cruz. 

“When salmon are plentiful, bears rarely eat the entire fish. In some cases, they only eat the brain, and we’ve found that swabbing along the edges of the braincase gives us the best results for extracting DNA,” Wheat said. “We also had success with swabbing inside distinct bite holes, and in the muscle tissue where the bears have stripped the skin off the salmon.”

The researchers were able to get brown bear genotypes for 55 percent of all the salmon carcasses sampled for saliva, compared to 34 percent for the scat samples. 

From a purely cost-savings perspective, the saliva sampling proved cheaper. It costs the researchers roughly $370 per bear to genetically identify individual animals using scat samples; the cost with saliva samples dropped to $118.

“This advance will help allow us to more effectively – and more economically – study one of the largest bears on the planet,” Wheat said. 

Levi agreed and also noted that the method does not have to be restricted to bear research. It could be adapted to other species, as well.

 “Many predators leave saliva on food remains,” he said. “We feel this type of saliva sampling could become an important tool for wildlife population monitoring.”

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Taal Levi, 541-737-4067, taal.levi@oregonstate.edu; Rachel Wheat, 719-439-3397, r.e.wheat@gmail.com

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Bear with salmon (Photo by Jennifer Allen)

Bear with salmon

Chum salmon (Photo by Rachel Wheat)

Chum salmon

Kelp forests globally resilient, but may need local solutions to environmental threats

CORVALLIS, Ore. – The first global assessment of marine kelp ecosystems shows that these critically-important habitats have exhibited a surprising resilience to environmental impacts over the past 50 years, but they have a wide variability in long-term responses that will call for regional management efforts to help protect their health in the future.

The findings were published today in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Scientists noted that kelp forests have a remarkable ability to recover quickly from extreme damage, but they can still be overwhelmed in some instances by the combination of global and local pressures.

This points to the need for regional management efforts that carefully consider local conditions when trying to offset human-caused impacts from climate change, overfishing and direct harvests, researchers said.

Kelp forests, the largest species of algae in shallow, coastal waters almost everywhere except the tropics, are a globally important foundation species that occupy almost half of the world’s marine ecoregions. Often harvested directly, they help support commercial fisheries, nutrient cycling, shoreline protection, and are valued in the range of billions of dollars annually.

The new research was conducted by an international team of 37 scientists who analyzed changes in kelp abundance in 34 regions of the planet that had been monitored over the past 50 years.

“Kelp forests are cold-water, fast-growing species that can apparently withstand many types of environmental disturbances,” said Mark Novak, an assistant professor of integrative biology in the College of Science at Oregon State University, co-author of the study, and an organizer of the international group at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis that conducted this research.

“The really surprising thing in this study was how much region-to-region variation we found, which is quite different from many other ecosystems. Thus, despite global threats like climate change and ocean acidification, the battle to protect our kelp forests of the future may best be fought locally – in the U.S., by states, counties, even individual cities and towns.”

These forests can grow fast, tall, and are highly resilient – but also are often on the coastal front line in exposure to pollution, sedimentation, invasive species, fishing, recreation and harvesting. Even though “they have some of the fastest growth rates of any primary producer on the planet,” the researchers wrote, there are limits to what they can take.

In their study the scientists concluded that of the kelp ecosystems that have been studied, 38 percent are in decline; 27 percent are increasing; and 35 percent show no detectable change. On a global scale, they are declining at 1.8 percent per year.

Where kelp resilience is eroding and leading to declines in abundance, impacts to ecosystem health and services can be far-reaching, the researchers wrote in their report.

This research was supported by the National Science Foundation, the University of California/Santa Barbara, and the state of California.

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Mark Novak, 541-737-3610

mark.novak@oregonstate.edu

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Kelp Forest
Kelp forests

New ‘optofluidic’ technology taps power of diatoms to improve sensor performance

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Researchers at Oregon State University have combined one of nature’s tiny miracles, the diatom, with a version of inkjet printing and optical sensing to create an exceptional sensing device that may be up to 10 million times more sensitive than some other commonly used approaches.

A patent has been approved on the new “optofluidic” technology, and the findings published in the journal Nanoscale.

When implemented in working devices, this approach might improve biomedical sensing of cancer biomarkers; be used for extraordinarily precise forensics work; save the lives of military personnel in combat situations; detect illegal drugs; or help tell whether organic food is really pesticide free or not.

The enormous sensitivity and low cost of the technology may have endless applications, researchers say, ranging from health monitoring to environmental protection, biological experiments and other uses.

“Some existing sensors can detect compounds at levels of one part per billion, which sounds pretty good, but for many purposes that’s not good enough,” said Alan Wang, an OSU assistant professor of electrical engineering in the OSU College of Engineering, and corresponding author on the study.

“With this approach, we can detect some types of compounds at less than one part per trillion, about the level of a single molecule in a small sample. That’s really difficult. Aside from its sensitivity, the technology can also work with ultra-small samples, is fast, and should be very inexpensive to use.”

This system combines advanced optics with a fluidic system to identify compounds. With most conventional systems of this type, fluids must flow over a surface, and this limits the transport of specific molecules you might want to identify, Wang said.

The diatoms in this new technology, however, act as natural “photonic crystals.” They harness the forces of convection against diffusion to help accelerate and concentrate molecules in a space where photons from optical sensors can get trapped, interact with and identify the compound through optical signatures.

“A diatom is a natural, living type of phytoplankton that creates very precise, tiny structures,” Wang said. “When liquids are deposited on it with carefully controlled inkjet devices, the droplets evaporate quickly, but, in the process, carry the molecules of interest to the diatom surface. This is the key to increasing the sensitivity of the photonic measurements.”

The sensor technology, researchers say, can quickly and accurately identify what compounds are present, and approximately how much.

In one demonstration in this research, the scientists tried to identify trinitrotoluene, or TNT, one of the common ingredients in explosive devices – including the hidden mines that have caused numerous injuries and deaths in battle situations. TNT is a chemical with very low volatility, meaning it has limited evaporation, and comparatively few molecules escape that could allow detection. In a hidden bomb, it’s hard to find.

This new technology was one million more times sensitive at identifying TNT than other common approaches, Wang said. A monitor based on this approach, that could be fast and accurate in military situations, may one day help save lives, he said.

Collaborators on the research were from Washington State University, and the research was supported by the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Department of Defense.

Commercial applications of the technology are already being explored, OSU officials said.

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Alan Wang, 541-737-4247

wang@eecs.oregonstate.edu


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Optofluidic sensor
Optofluidic sensor

Discovery of new bacteria complicates problem with salmon poisoning in dogs

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Researchers at Oregon State University have identified for the first time another bacterium that can cause symptoms similar to “salmon poisoning” in dogs - and may complicate the efforts of Pacific Northwest pet owners to keep their dogs protected and healthy.

The Pacific Northwest, from northern California to central Washington, is the only region of the world in which dogs face this potentially deadly health threat. It’s caused by a complicated life cycle that includes a common freshwater snail that harbors a fluke worm, and the fluke, in turn, carries the bacterium Neorickettsia helminthoeca. The bacterium is the actual cause of salmon poisoning.

The underlying problem is not new. Dogs that died after eating uncooked, infected salmon were first noted in the Astoria Journal in 1814, not long after Lewis and Clark visited the region.

The conventional wisdom, however, has been that dogs are usually immune to salmon poisoning after they have once been infected, treated with antibiotics and recovered – giving pet owners at least some assurance that it’s a problem they no longer need be concerned about.

The new discovery makes it clear the issue is not that simple.

In the infectious process that leads to salmon poisoning, the fluke is released from snails, which then infect salmon and other freshwater fishes. The life cycle is completed when a mammal eats an infected fish – in this case, dogs get sick from eating raw or undercooked salmon. The possible occurrence of “salmon poisoning” is actually dictated by the geographic distribution of the snail.

Another bacterium called “SF agent,” however, has been found for the first time in a salmonid fish anywhere in the world, researchers report in a recent study in Veterinary Parasitology. The fluke host for this bacterium is Stellanchasmus falcatus.

“SF agent can infect dogs that eat salmon or trout, and it can cause a mild fever in dogs and other symptoms that can resemble salmon poisoning,” said Michael Kent, a professor of microbiology in the OSU College of Science and College of Veterinary Medicine, and co-author of the study. “It can also be treated with antibiotics, but may not offer immunity to dogs that could be later exposed to the actual salmon poisoning bacterium. A pet owner might believe their dog is protected, when it isn’t.”

The larval stages of the worm that carries Neorickettsia helminthoeca were first associated with the disease in 1911, and in 1950 the actual bacterium was confirmed as the cause of salmon poisoning. It’s in the same bacterial family as SF agent – meaning pet owners must now understand their dogs may face two related Neorickettsia pathogens – but one causes only a mild illness, while the other can be deadly.

Veterinary doctors, Kent said, routinely have treated animals based on their [mlk1] clinical signs, because the eggs of the fluke may be hard to find in dog feces, and the bacterium is difficult to culture from dog blood. Left untreated, dogs with salmon poisoning can die in a week to 10 days, often from severe hemorrhaging and internal ruptures. The ultimate fatality rate can approach 90 percent of untreated cases.

The bottom line, he said, is that pet owners should not make any assumptions about whether or not their dogs may have immunity to salmon poisoning. Kent said he has received several reports from local veterinarians documenting dogs contracting salmon poisoning more than once.

With the new awareness that different bacteria can cause similar initial symptoms, pet owners should know that dogs displaying such symptoms may or may not have a serious health problem.

The fluke worm, but not the bacterium, can also infect humans.  Humans do not contract salmon poisoning, but may develop a relatively mild gastrointestinal illness. Either freezing or cooking infected fish will kill the worms.

This research was supported by the National Institutes of Health and done in collaboration with researchers from the University of North Dakota, Georgia Southern University, and the Woodburn Veterinary Clinic in Woodburn, Ore.


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Michael Kent, 541-737-8652

michael.kent@oregonstate.edu

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Mental health spending nets return by reducing jail population

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Each dollar a state spends on mental health care cuts roughly 25 cents off its jail expenditures by reducing its inmate population, a new study shows.

The findings, published in the journal Social Science & Medicine, suggest that 35 of the 44 states analyzed could reduce jail populations by spending more on public inpatient mental health care while maintaining their current level of community mental health care. The U.S. average cost for housing a jail inmate is $60 a day.

Jangho Yoon and Jeff Luck, professors in the College of Public Health and Human Sciences at Oregon State University, looked at data from 44 states plus the District of Columbia over a nine-year period, examining the relationships among government spending on community mental health care, spending on inpatient mental health care and jail population.

Community care, which traces its roots to President Kennedy’s signing of the 1963 Community Mental Health Act, evolved as an alternative to institutionalization. It involves a mix of public and private organizations that work with patients as they continue to live in their home city or town. Inpatient care, meanwhile, refers to facilities such as state mental hospitals.

People with mental illness make up a significant portion of jail populations, and many of those inmates could be safely supervised and more effectively treated somewhere other than jail. Effects of the treatment could include being less likely to behave in a way that results in being jailed.

While emphasizing their work does not support cutting spending for community mental health services, the researchers note that from a strict intersystem return on investment perspective, inpatient spending has a greater effect on lowering jail spending.

“Everyone has a right to treatment in the most safe and humane environment possible,” Yoon said. “Our findings show that if per-capita public inpatient mental health spending is increased by 10 percent, the jail population shrinks by 1.5 percent. The positive spill-over effect of increased inpatient spending is greater at lower levels of community spending, which shows the principle of diminishing marginal return applies here.”

Likewise, Yoon noted, the positive spill-over effect of community spending is greater at lower levels of inpatient spending, “although a change in per-capita community mental health expenditure on average does not have a statistically significant effect on jail population size.

“An increase in public inpatient spending would decrease jail populations in the 35 states that spend less than $134 per capita on community mental health care, and the District of Columbia, which also spends less than $134 per capita,” Yoon said.

Below that $134-per-capita level, he added, “the associated benefit-cost ratio is 26 cents, which indicates a positive intersystem return on investment of 26 percent. Every dollar spent annually on inpatient mental health by a state would yield a positive spillover benefit of a quarter dollar for the jail system by reducing the number of inmates.”

The research showed that spending on community mental health care loses its ability to reduce jail populations once spending levels rise to greater than $16 per capita. Forty-two of the 44 states analyzed, as well as the District of Columbia, are below that threshold; thus, those states’ jail populations would likely decline with an increase in community mental health spending while maintaining the current level of inpatient funding.

“Although there is significant cross-state variation, the ROI overall is much greater for inpatient spending,” Yoon said. “Our results suggest that states whose policy aim is to reduce jail populations direct increased spending toward inpatient mental health rather than outpatient-based community mental health.”

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Steve Lundeberg, 541-737-4039

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