scientific research and advances

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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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Karl Haapala, 541-737-3122

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Solid steel bevel gear

Different gear types
Mechanically joined bevel gear

Discovery about new battery overturns decades of false assumptions

CORVALLIS, Ore. – New findings at Oregon State University have overturned a scientific dogma that stood for decades, by showing that potassium can work with graphite in a potassium-ion battery – a discovery that could pose a challenge and sustainable alternative to the widely-used lithium-ion battery.

Lithium-ion batteries are ubiquitous in devices all over the world, ranging from cell phones to laptop computers and electric cars. But there may soon be a new type of battery based on materials that are far more abundant and less costly.

A potassium-ion battery has been shown to be possible. And the last time this possibility was explored was when Herbert Hoover was president, the Great Depression was in full swing and the Charles Lindbergh baby kidnapping was the big news story of the year – 1932.

“For decades, people have assumed that potassium couldn’t work with graphite or other bulk carbon anodes in a battery,” said Xiulei (David) Ji, the lead author of the study and an assistant professor of chemistry in the College of Science at Oregon State University.

“That assumption is incorrect,” Ji said. “It’s really shocking that no one ever reported on this issue for 83 years.”

The Journal of the American Chemical Society published the findings from this discovery, which was supported by the U.S. Department of Energy and done in collaboration with OSU researchers Zelang Jian and Wei Luo. A patent is also pending on the new technology.

The findings are of considerable importance, researchers say, because they open some new alternatives to batteries that can work with well-established and inexpensive graphite as the anode, or high-energy reservoir of electrons. Lithium can do that, as the charge carrier whose ions migrate into the graphite and create an electrical current.

Aside from its ability to work well with a carbon anode, however, lithium is quite rare, found in only 0.0017 percent, by weight, of the Earth’s crust. Because of that it’s comparatively expensive, and it’s difficult to recycle. Researchers have yet to duplicate its performance with less costly and more readily available materials, such as sodium, magnesium, or potassium.

“The cost-related problems with lithium are sufficient that you won’t really gain much with economies of scale,” Ji said. “With most products, as you make more of them, the cost goes down. With lithium the reverse may be true in the near future. So we have to find alternatives.”

That alternative, he said, may be potassium, which is 880 times more abundant in the Earth’s crust than lithium. The new findings show that it can work effectively with graphite or soft carbon in the anode of an electrochemical battery. Right now, batteries based on this approach don’t have performance that equals those of lithium-ion batteries, but improvements in technology should narrow the gap, he said.

“It’s safe to say that the energy density of a potassium-ion battery may never exceed that of lithium-ion batteries,” he said. “But they may provide a long cycling life, a high power density, a lot lower cost, and be ready to take the advantage of the existing manufacturing processes of carbon anode materials.”

Electrical energy storage in batteries is essential not only for consumer products such as cell phones and computers, but also in transportation, industry power backup, micro-grid storage, and for the wider use of renewable energy.

OSU officials say they are seeking support for further research and to help commercialize the new technology, through the OSU Office of Commercialization and Corporate Development.


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Xiulei (David) Ji, 541-737-6798

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Potassium-ion battery

Battery characteristics

System may offer new hope for personalized treatment of eczema

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Pharmaceutical researchers at Oregon State University have developed a new approach to treat eczema and other inflammatory skin disorders that would use individual tests and advanced science to create personalized treatments based on each person’s lipid deficiencies.

A patent has been applied for on this system, which could revolutionize the treatment of eczema if it works as scientists believe it will.

By identifying the specific problems each person has, moisturizers, skin protectants or other products or therapies could be created to address those specific problems.

Aside from powerful steroid treatments that have a wide range of unwanted side effects, the primary existing treatments for eczema are “one size fits all” moisturizing or protective products, with little basis for understanding whether or not that’s what an individual needs. Sometimes such products help, and often they are inadequate.

In 2012 in the United States, about 15 million Americans struggled with eczema, or atopic dermatitis, accounting for about $1 billion in health care costs and 10-20 percent of all visits to a dermatologist.

Eczema and some other skin disorders can be caused by a deficiency in lipids, which are various types of fat in the skin such as ceramides, cholesterol and free fatty acids, according to Arup Indra, an associate professor in the OSU College of Pharmacy and an expert on inflammatory skin disease.

“Lipids in our skin help retain moisture, they act like a blanket that protects against irritation and infection,” Indra said. “You could think of skin cells as the bricks of a wall, but lipids are the mortar that prevent things from getting through the cracks. When they are deficient, problems can develop.”

Part of what makes eczema so difficult to treat, however, is that there are hundreds of lipids, serving various functions as a skin protector, barrier or antimicrobial agent – and every individual has a slightly different lipid composition. Most of the moisturizers now available are just random compositions of lipids that may or may not help address what is missing in a given individual.

The new system created at OSU starts with surprising simplicity. A piece of tape is stuck to the skin and then pulled off, removing with it some skin cells. The painless procedure is totally noninvasive and could be used on anyone from infants to the elderly.

Those skin and lipid samples are then analyzed with sophisticated mass spectrometry in a process created at OSU that literally produces a “lipid fingerprint” – a measurement of that person’s skin and lipid profile. This profile can then be compared against those of healthy individuals, to help identify missing or deficient lipids that may be an underlying cause of the skin disorder.

From that, various products or other therapies can be developed that would help replace or increase the lipids that are deficient in a person. They could be used topically like conventional moisturizers.

OSU’s research, the first of its type, has already shown that the lipid profiles of people with healthy skin often differ markedly from those with eczema or other inflammatory skin disorders. This offers further evidence that altered lipid composition in the skin of eczema patients may be a determinant of disease onset, progression and severity, the researchers said.

“We believe it’s likely that supplementation with the lipids a person specifically needs will help address their skin problems and improve epidermal barrier function, and we plan to test that in continued research,” Indra said.

Findings in this area could also be used in veterinary medicine, the researchers said, since many pets such as cats and dogs also have skin disorders.

Further collaboration and support from private industry is being sought by OSU to help bring these systems more rapidly to availability, through its Office for Commercialization and Corporate Development.

This research has been supported by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, part of the National Institutes of Health.

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Arup Indra, 541-737-5775

Bacteria in ancient flea may be ancestor of the Black Death

CORVALLIS, Ore. – About 20 million years ago a single flea became entombed in amber with tiny bacteria attached to it, providing what researchers believe may be the oldest evidence on Earth of a dreaded and historic killer – an ancient strain of the bubonic plague.

If indeed the fossil bacteria are related to plague bacteria, Yersinia pestis, the discovery would show that this scourge, which killed more than half the population of Europe in the 14th century, actually had been around for millions of years before that, traveled around much of the world, and predates the human race.

Findings on this extraordinary amber fossil have been published in the Journal of Medical Entomology by George Poinar, Jr., an entomology researcher in the College of Science at Oregon State University, and a leading expert on plant and animal life forms found preserved in this semi-precious stone.

It can’t be determined with certainty that these bacteria, which were attached to the flea’s proboscis in a dried droplet and compacted in its rectum, are related to Yersinia pestis, scientists say. But their size, shape and characteristics are consistent with modern forms of those bacteria. They are a coccobacillus bacteria; they are seen in both rod and nearly spherical shapes; and are similar to those of Yersinia pestis. Of the pathogenic bacteria transmitted by fleas today, only Yersinia has such shapes.

“Aside from physical characteristics of the fossil bacteria that are similar to plague bacteria, their location in the rectum of the flea is known to occur in modern plague bacteria,” Poinar said. “And in this fossil, the presence of similar bacteria in a dried droplet on the proboscis of the flea is consistent with the method of transmission of plague bacteria by modern fleas.”

These findings are in conflict with modern genomic studies indicating that the flea-plague-vertebrate cycle evolved only in the past 20,000 years, rather than 20 million. However, today there are several strains of Yersinia pestis, and there is evidence that past outbreaks of this disease were caused by still different strains, some of which are extinct today.

While human strains of Yersinia could well have evolved some 10,000 to 20,000 years ago, Poinar said, ancient Yersinia strains that evolved as rodent parasites could have appeared long before humans existed. These ancient strains would certainly be extinct by now, he said.  

The complex mode of transmission of plague is also reflected in the flea seen in this fossil.

When a flea feeds on a plague-infected animal, the Yersinia pestis bacteria taken up with the blood often form a viscous mass in the flea’s proventriculus, located between the stomach and esophagus. When this happens, the fleas can’t obtain enough blood, and as they attempt to feed again, bacteria are often forced back out through the proboscis and into the wound.

This blockage is in part what makes them effective vectors of the plague, and the dried droplets on the proboscis of the fossil flea could represent a sample of the sticky bacterial mass that was regurgitated.

“If this is an ancient strain of Yersinia, it would be extraordinary,” Poinar said. “It would show that plague is actually an ancient disease that no doubt was infecting and possibly causing some extinction of animals long before any humans existed. Plague may have played a larger role in the past than we imagined.”

The fossil flea originated from amber mines in what is now the Dominican Republic, between Puerto Plata and Santiago. Millions of years ago the area was a tropical moist forest.

Very few fleas of any type have been found preserved in amber, Poinar said, and none have been reported with associated microorganisms, as in this case. This specimen had some other unique morphological features that indicate it’s a species that long ago went extinct.

But it was the associated bacteria that fascinated the researchers.

“Since the dried droplet with bacteria is still attached to the tip of the proboscis, the flea may have become entrapped in resin shortly after it had fed on an infected animal,” Poinar said. “This might have been one of the rodents that occurred in the Dominican amber forest. Rodent hair has been recovered from that amber source.”

Flea-like creatures found in conventional stone fossils date back to the time of the dinosaurs, Poinar said, and the role of insects in general, and as carriers of disease, may have played a role in the demise of the ancient reptiles.

In 2008, Poinar and his wife, Roberta Poinar, wrote a book “What Bugged the Dinosaurs? Insects, Disease and Death in the Cretaceous.” It explored the evolutionary rise of insects around the same time that dinosaurs went extinct. The thesis developed in the book added insect-borne diseases as a likely component, that, along with other biotic and abiotic factors such as climate change, asteroid impacts and volcanic eruptions, led to  the extinction of the dinosaurs. Some modern diseases such as leishmaniasis and malaria clearly date to those times.

Bubonic plague in modern times can infect and kill a wide range of animals, in addition to humans. It is still endemic in many countries, including the United States where it’s been found in prairie dogs and some other animals. Even though today it is treatable with antibiotics, in the U.S. four people have died from plague so far this year.

During the Middle Ages, however, three phases of the disease – bubonic, septicemic and pneumonic plague - earned a feared reputation. Periodic waves of what was called the Black Death, for the gruesome condition in which it left its victims, swept through Europe and Asia, altogether killing an estimated 75 to 200 million people.

Scholars say that religious, social and economic changes caused by the plague altered the course of world history.

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Flea in amber

Flea in amber

Bacteria on proboscis
Bacteria on proboscis

Study finds valley sites lost – and gained – about half of their bird diversity in 60 years

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A new study comparing bird communities six decades apart at five sites in Oregon’s Willamette Valley has documented the loss of roughly 50 percent of the bird species – yet at the same time, recorded almost the same number of new species.

The bottom line is that there has been little change in the number of species or diversity over 60 years, but a great deal of change in the specific bird species occupying the sites.

“Bird communities change naturally as the habitat changes,” noted Jenna Curtis, a doctoral student in fisheries and wildlife at Oregon State University’s College of Agricultural Sciences and lead author on the study. “Some of the change is natural, as plants grow, while in other instances the habitat is altered through agriculture, urbanization or other human activities.”

Birds increasing in association with human activity and favorable conditions include Anna’s hummingbird, European starling, brown-headed cowbird, and house finch.

Some of the birds that appear to be decreasing because of regional environmental changes include Nashville warbler, chipping sparrow, and the northern rough-winged swallow.

Some species have experienced little change in numbers from one master’s study to another over 60 years, including killdeer, several woodpecker species, American robins, song sparrows, red-winged blackbirds, Steller’s jays, American crows, and others.

Results of the research have been published in the journal, PeerJ.

The study is unusual because there are few highly detailed, historic surveys of bird communities on a local level – especially ones that looked at multiple habitats, including coniferous forest, oak woodland, marsh, mixed deciduous, riverine/riparian and brushy. But in 1953, Richard Eddy completed and published a master’s thesis at Oregon State in which he surveyed and documented bird species at six sites within 50 kilometers of Corvallis.

As part of her own master’s study, Curtis located five of Eddy’s original six sites and conducted a new survey, comparing the richness and diversity of bird species – during many of the same times of year as Eddy.

“Quite a bit has changed in six decades,” Curtis said. “One site, which used to be known as Murphy’s Beach, is now a sports recreation facility at Crystal Lake Park near Corvallis. It used to be very barren, with old roads and chest-high grass until a flood in the 1960s completely altered the landscape. Now there are large cottonwood trees and soccer fields. Bird populations change accordingly.”

Another site was off Bruce Road on Highway 99 between Corvallis and Monroe. When Eddy did his survey, much of the marsh was grazed by cattle. With new water management protocols, this area within Finley Wildlife Refuge is now a haven for waterbirds.

W. Douglas Robinson, the Mace Professor for Watchable Wildlife at OSU, has been conducting bird surveys in each county in Oregon to begin establishing new baselines for species diversity throughout Oregon by the year 2020. Human activities throughout western Oregon can influence bird populations at local sites, he said.

“There have been massive changes in agriculture resulting in larger fields and fewer pastures,” Robinson said. “As a result, species like pheasant, bobwhite, chipping sparrows and common nighthawks largely have disappeared throughout the valley. This study is wonderful because it is so rare to find such detailed information from 60 years ago and compare it to what is happening today. It helps us to better understand how birds respond to changes in landscape – both natural and human-caused.”

Curtis and Robinson say it isn’t clear whether climate change and drought have had a significant impact on bird species in western Oregon.

“That’s why we need to gather more baseline data,” Robinson said, “so that we know what is ‘normal’ and can identify deviations. There are some signals, for example, that there may be changes in the insect populations, which would affect a number of bird species. But we need more data there, too.”

Persons interested in volunteering for the Oregon 2020 project can find more information at: http://oregon2020.com/

The Curtis-led study was supported by OSU through the Bob and Phyllis Mace Watchable Wildlife Professorship and a scholarship from the Santiam Fish and Game Association.

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Jenna Curtis, 503-559-6094, jenna.curtis@oregonstate.edu;

Doug Robinson, 541-737-9501, douglas.robinson@oregonstate.edu 

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Photo at left: A Nashville warbler (photo by Frank Lospalluto). Photo link: https://flic.kr/p/yFrKg9








  A chipping sparrow (photo by Frank Lospalluto)




Anna's hummingbird (photo by Frank Lospalluto)