Category: Science & Technology

NASA Voyager panel to feature BU astronomer Merav Opher

April 21st, 2011 in College and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, News Releases, Science & Technology 0 comments

Contact: Patrick Farrell, 617-358-1185 |

(Boston) — On April 28, 2011, NASA will host an event about the 33-year journey of NASA’s twin Voyager spacecraft to the edge of the solar system, which now are more than 10 billion miles away from the sun. Merav Opher, assistant professor of astronomy and a Voyager guest investigator, will be one of the panel members for the event, to be broadcast live on NASA TV.

The event celebrates the accomplishments of the Voyager mission as its two probes continue to explore an uncharted region located beyond the solar system’s known planets that forms the outer boundary of the solar bubble. In a few years, the probes will transition into the medium between stars known as interstellar space.

Panel members will discuss how a unique idea became scientific legend, the exotic region of space Voyagers are exploring right now and where they’re going, what it will mean to leave the sun’s sphere of influence, the vision that led to sending a message from Earth to possible life elsewhere in the galaxy, and Voyagers’ enduring impact.

Opher will address a number of the Voyager program’s significant findings and contributions to the exploration of space, including Voyager’s influence on the rising generation of scientists and the impact Voyager data have had on the scientific community at large. She also will describe her first experience with Voyager, share anecdotes about joining the Voyager team, and discuss her specific areas of interest in the Voyager data and her expectations going forward with the program.

“It’s a dream to be able to have direct access to the data that is revolutionizing our understanding of how stars interact with their surrounding media. It’s making us revisit our notions of the properties and what we know about sheaths and astrospheres,” says Opher.

Opher’s research has focused on how plasma and magnetic effects reveal themselves in astrophysical and space physics environments and, in particular, how stars interact with the surrounding media, how the solar system interacts with the local interstellar medium, and the interaction of extra-solar planets with their host stars. Opher notes that the Voyager data led to the discovery of how interstellar magnetic fields play a major role in shaping the heliosphere, producing assymetries that are measurable. “We are arriving at the notion that the magnetic field outside our home, earth, is strong and important enough to influence and shape its structure.”

Opher has been a pioneer in the use of advanced, 3D computational models to investigate stellar phenomena. She also has studied how magnetic disturbances are driven and propagate from the sun to earth. She has a PhD in astronomy from the University of Sao Paulo, Brazil, and received her postdoctoral training at the Plasma Group of the Physics Department at the University of California, Los Angeles. She also was a Caltech Scholar at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, and at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Before coming to Boston University, she was an associate professor of astronomy at George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia.

Other panel members include Ed Stone, Voyager project scientist and professor of physics, California Institute of Technology; Ann Druyan, creative director, Voyager Interstellar Message Project (Carl Sagan’s co-writer and widow); and Suzanne Dodd, Voyager project manager, Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

NASA has invited elementary and high school classrooms to submit questions about the Voyager mission and interstellar space to the panel, some of which will be answered during the live NASA TV broadcast.

For additional information about the Voyager program and this event, visit, and

About Boston University—Founded in 1839, Boston University is an internationally recognized institution of higher education and research. With more than 30,000 students, it is the fourth largest independent university in the United States. BU contains 17 colleges and schools along with a number of multi-disciplinary centers and institutes which are central to the school’s research and teaching mission.

New Study Highlights Importance of Ecosystem Services Provided by Bats

March 31st, 2011 in College and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, News Releases, Science & Technology 0 comments

Contact: Patrick Farrell, 617-358-1185 |

(Boston) — Thomas H. Kunz, Warren Distinguished Professor and director of Boston University’s Center for Ecology and Conservation Biology, and a team of researchers, including Elizabeth Braun de Torrez, graduate student in BU’s Department of Biology; Dana M. Bauer, assistant professor in BU’s Department of Geography and Environment; Tatyana Lobova, assistant professor in Old Dominion University’s Department of Biology; and Theodore H. Fleming, emeritus professor of biology at the University of Miami and adjunct professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Arizona, recently published an important review paper on “Ecosystem Services Provided by Bats” in the journal Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences.1

This paper follows a seminal study entitled “Economic Importance of Bats in Agriculture,” published in the April 1, 2011 issue of the journal Science2. Together, these papers show dramatically how bat populations in North America are declining from two catastrophic assaults within their ecosystems: a devastating fungal disease that has killed over one million hibernating bats in the northeastern U.S. within the past four years, and the continuing adverse impacts from the development of wind-energy. Together, these papers raise an important question that is often asked by policy makers and the general public: “Why should we care about bats?”

Based on current knowledge, we should care because natural ecosystems throughout the world have become increasingly threatened by anthropogenic (human generated) factors such as urbanization, mining, deforestation, chemical and light pollution, and invasive species. Healthy ecosystems are especially important in providing various regulatory processes (such as insect suppression, pollination, seed dispersal, purification of water and air, stabilization of soils, decomposition of wastes, binding of toxic substances, mitigation of diseases, mitigation of floods, and regulation of climate), products or provisions (food, fuel, fiber, and medicines), supporting processes (nutrient cycling, soil formation, and primary production), and cultural benefits (aesthetic, spiritual, educational and recreational) that improve the overall well-being of humans. These processes and products are commonly referred to as ecosystem services and have been formally designated as such by the United Nations Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. Ecosystem services are the benefits obtained from the environment that increase human wellbeing and vary depending on the ecosystems and the organisms they constitute.

Kunz and his coauthors review the role of bats in providing ecosystem services, focusing primarily on those that regulate and provide services needed to sustain humankind, with a brief overview of supporting and cultural services. One of the grand challenges that society faces is how best to identify, protect and conserve services that are critical for human and ecosystem health. Economic valuation is conducted by measuring the human welfare gains or losses that result from changes in the provision of ecosystem services. Bats have long been postulated to play important roles in arthropod suppression, seed dispersal and pollination; however, only recently have these ecosystem services begun to be thoroughly evaluated. Kunz and his colleagues describe dietary preferences, foraging behaviors, adaptations and phylogenetic histories of insectivorous, frugivorous and nectarivorous bats worldwide in the context of their respective ecosystem services. For each trophic ensemble they discuss the consequences of these ecological interactions on both natural and agricultural systems.

Throughout the review, the authors highlight the types of research that are needed to quantify the ecosystem services in question. Finally, they provide a comprehensive overview of economic valuation of ecosystem services. Unfortunately, few studies estimating the economic value of ecosystem services provided by bats have been conducted to date; however, they outline a framework that could be used in future studies to more fully address this question. For example, consumptive goods provided by bats, such as food and guano, are often exchanged in markets where the market price indicates an economic value. Non-market valuation methods can be used to estimate the economic value of non-consumptive services, including inputs to agricultural production and recreational activities. Information on the ecological and economic value of ecosystem services provided by bats can be used to inform decisions regarding where and when to protect or restore bat populations and associated habitats, as well as to improve public perception of bats.

Founded in 1839, Boston University is an internationally recognized institution of higher education and research. With more than 30,000 students, it is the fourth largest independent university in the United States. BU contains 17 colleges and schools along with a number of multi-disciplinary centers and institutes which are central to the school’s research and teaching mission.

1Kunz, T.H., E. Braun de Torrez, D.M. Bauer, T.A. Lobova, and T.H. Fleming. 2011. Ecosystem services provided by bats, in “The Year in Ecology and Conservation,” eds, R.A. Ostfeld and W.H. Schlesinger. Special issue, Ann. N.Y. Acad. Sci. 1223, 1-38.

2Boyles, J.G., P.M. Cryan, G.F. McCracken, and T.H. Kunz. 2011. Economic importance of bats in agriculture. Science, 332: 41-42.

Bats Worth Billions To Agriculture: Pest-Control Services At Risk

March 31st, 2011 in College and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, News Releases, Science & Technology 0 comments

Contact: Patrick Farrell, 617-358-1185 |

(Boston) — Thomas Kunz, Warren Distinguished Professor in Boston University’s Department of Biology, has coauthored an analysis published this week in the journal Science that shows how declines of bat populations caused by a new wildlife disease and fatalities at industrial-scale wind turbines could lead to substantial economic losses on the farm.

Natural pest-control services provided by insect-eating bats in the United States likely save the U.S. agricultural industry at least $3 billion a year, and yet insectivorous bats are among the most overlooked economically important, non-domesticated animals in North America, noted the study’s authors, scientists from the University of Pretoria (South Africa), the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the University of Tennessee, and Boston University.

“People often ask why we should care about bats,” said Paul Cryan, a USGS research scientist at the Fort Collins Science Center and one of the study’s authors. “This analysis suggests that bats are saving us big bucks by gobbling up insects that eat or damage our crops. It is obviously beneficial that insectivorous bats are patrolling the skies at night above our fields and forests—these bats deserve help.”

The value of the pest-control services to agriculture provided by bats in the U.S. alone range from a low of $3.7 billion to a high of $53 billion a year, the authors estimated. They also warned that noticeable economic losses to North American agriculture could well occur in the next 4 to 5 years because of the double-whammy effect of bat losses due to the emerging disease white-nose syndrome and fatalities of certain migratory bats at wind-energy facilities. In the Northeast, however, where white-nose syndrome has killed more than one million bats in the past few years, the effects could be evident sooner.

“Bats eat tremendous quantities of flying pest insects, so the loss of bats is likely to have long-term effects on agricultural and ecological systems,” said Justin Boyles, a researcher with the University of Pretoria and the lead author of the study. “Consequently, not only is the conservation of bats important for the well-being of ecosystems, but it is also in the best interest of national and international economies.”

A single little brown bat, which has a body no bigger than an adult human thumb, can eat 4 to 8 grams (the weight of about a grape or two) of insects each night, the authors note. Although this may not sound like much, it adds up—the loss of one million bats in the Northeast has probably resulted in between 660 and 1,320 metric tons of insects no longer being eaten each year by bats in the region.

“Additionally, because the agricultural value of bats in the Northeast is small compared with other parts of the country, such losses could be even more substantial in the extensive agricultural regions in the Midwest and the Great Plains, where wind-energy development is booming and the fungus responsible for white-nose syndrome was recently detected,” said Kunz.

Although these estimates include the costs of pesticide applications that are not needed because of the pest-control services bats provide, Boyles and his colleagues said they did not account for the detrimental effects of pesticides on ecosystems or the economic benefits of bats suppressing pest insects in forests, both of which may be considerable.

The loss of bats to white-nose syndrome has largely occurred during the past 4 years, after the disease first appeared in upstate New York. Since then, the fungus thought to cause white-nose syndrome has spread southward and westward and has now been found in 15 states and in eastern Canada. Bat declines in the Northeast, the most severely affected region in the U.S. thus far, have exceeded 70 percent. Populations of at least one species, the little brown bat, have declined so precipitously that scientists expect the species to disappear from the region within the next 20 years.

The losses of bats at wind-power facilities, however, pose a different kind of problem, according to the authors. Although several species of migratory tree-dwelling bats are particularly susceptible to wind turbines, continental-scale monitoring programs are not in place and reasons for the particular susceptibility of some bat species to turbines remain a mystery, Cryan said.

By one estimate, published by Kunz and colleagues in 2007, about 33,000 to 111,000 bats will die each year by 2020 just in the mountainous region of the Mid-Atlantic Highlands from direct collisions with wind turbines as well from lung damage caused by pressure changes bats experience when flying near moving turbine blades. In addition, surprisingly large numbers of bats are dying at wind-energy facilities in other regions of North America.

“We hope that our analysis gets people thinking more about the value of bats and why their conservation is important,” said Gary McCracken, a University of Tennessee professor and co-author of the analysis. “The bottom line is that the natural pest-control services provided by bats save farmers a lot of money.”

The authors conclude that solutions to reduce the impacts of white-nose syndrome and fatalities from wind turbines may be possible in the coming years, but that such work is most likely to be driven by public support that will require a wider awareness of the benefits of insectivorous bats.

The article, “Economic importance of bats in agriculture,” appears in the April 1 edition of Science. Authors are J.G. Boyles, P. Cryan, G. McCracken and T. Kunz.

Founded in 1839, Boston University is an internationally recognized institution of higher education and research. With more than 30,000 students, it is the fourth largest independent university in the United States. BU contains 17 colleges and schools along with a number of multi-disciplinary centers and institutes which are central to the school’s research and teaching mission.

NASA Satellites Detect Extensive Drought Impact on Amazon Forests

March 28th, 2011 in College and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, News Releases, Science & Technology 0 comments

Contact: Patrick Farrell, 617-358-1185 |

(Boston) — Researchers at Boston University, NASA, and the Federal University in Vicosa, Brazil, have published a new NASA-funded study that shows widespread reductions in the greenness of forests in the vast Amazon basin in South America were caused by the record-breaking drought of 2010.

“The greenness levels of Amazonian vegetation — a measure of its health — decreased dramatically over an area more than three and one-half times the size of Texas and did not recover to normal levels, even after the drought ended in late October 2010,” said Liang Xu, the study’s lead author from Boston University.

The drought sensitivity of Amazon rainforests is a subject of intense study. Scientists are concerned that because computer models predict that in a changing climate with warmer temperatures and altered rainfall patterns the ensuing moisture stress could cause some of the rainforests to be replaced by grasslands or woody savannas, releasing the carbon stored in the rotting wood into the atmosphere, which could accelerate global warming. The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has warned similar droughts could be more frequent in the Amazon region in the future.

The comprehensive study was prepared by an international team of scientists using more than a decade’s worth of satellite data from NASA’s Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) and Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM).

Analysis of these data produced detailed maps of vegetation greenness declines from the 2010 drought. The study has been accepted for publication in “Geophysical Research Letters,” a journal of the American Geophysical Union.

The authors first developed maps of drought-affected areas using thresholds of below-average rainfall as a guide. Next they identified affected vegetation using two different greenness indexes as surrogates for green leaf area and physiological functioning.

The maps show the 2010 drought reduced the greenness of approximately 965,000 square miles of vegetation in the Amazon—more than four times the area affected by the last severe drought in 2005.

“The MODIS vegetation greenness data suggest a more widespread, severe and long-lasting impact to Amazonian vegetation than what can be inferred based solely on rainfall data,” said Arindam Samanta, a co-lead author from Atmospheric and Environmental Research Inc. in Lexington, Mass.

The severity of the 2010 drought was also seen in records of water levels in rivers across the Amazon basin. Water levels started to fall in August 2010, reaching record low levels in late October. Water levels only began to rise with the arrival of rains later that winter.

“Last year was the driest year on record based on 109 years of Rio Negro water level data at the Manaus harbor. For comparison, the lowest level during the so-called once-in-a-century drought in 2005, was only eighth lowest,” said Marcos Costa, coauthor from the Federal University in Vicosa, Brazil.

As anecdotal reports of a severe drought began to appear in the news media during the summer of 2010, the authors started near-real time processing of massive amounts of satellite data. They used a new capability, the NASA Earth Exchange (NEX), built for the NASA Advanced Supercomputer facility at the agency’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif. NEX is a collaborative supercomputing environment that brings together data, models and computing resources.

With NEX, the study’s authors quickly obtained a large-scale view of the impact of the drought on the Amazon forests and were able to complete the analysis by January 2011. Similar reports about the impact of the 2005 drought were published about two years after the fact.

“Timely monitoring of our planet’s vegetation with satellites is critical, and with NEX it can be done efficiently to deliver near-real time information, as this study demonstrates,” said study coauthor Ramakrishna Nemani, a research scientist at Ames. An article about the NEX project appears in this week’s issue of Eos, the weekly newspaper of the American Geophysical Union.

For more information about this study and the NEX project, visit:

For information about NASA and agency programs, visit:

As of the date of this press release, the paper by Xu et al. is still “in press.” Journalists and public information officers (PIOs) of educational and scientific institutions who have registered with AGU can download a PDF copy of this paper by clicking on this link:

Copies of the paper also are available by emailing a request to Kathleen O’Neil at or Peter Weiss at Please provide your name, the name of your publication, and your phone number. Neither the paper nor this press release is under embargo.

About Boston University—Founded in 1839, Boston University is an internationally recognized institution of higher education and research. With more than 30,000 students, it is the fourth largest independent university in the United States. BU contains 17 colleges and schools along with a number of multi-disciplinary centers and institutes which are central to the school’s research and teaching mission.

Novel Mechanism for Control of Gene Expression Revealed

March 4th, 2011 in Goldman School of Dental Medicine, News Releases, Science & Technology 0 comments

Contact: Gina M. Digravio, 617-638-8491 |

(Boston) – Dr. David Levin, Professor of Molecular & Cell Biology at Boston University Henry M. Goldman School of Dental Medicine and Professor of Microbiology at Boston University School of Medicine discovered recently a novel, evolutionarily conserved mechanism for the regulation of gene expression. The study describing this work titled, “Mpk1 MAPK Association with the Paf1 Complex Blocks Sen1-Mediated Premature Transcription Termination,” appears in the March 4 issue of Cell.

Normal cell growth, embryonic development, and responses to stress, require proper spatial and temporal control of gene expression. Studies on control of transcription (RNA biosynthesis) are typically centered on understanding how the RNA polymerase is recruited to the promoter, the control region of a gene. However, new work from Levin and postdoctoral fellow, Ki-Young Kim, has revealed the existence of a second level of control in a yeast model system.

They found that genes expressed solely under certain stress conditions are normally maintained in a silent state by a process called transcriptional attenuation. In attenuation, the RNA polymerase initiates transcription of the gene, but its progress is terminated prematurely by a termination complex that binds to the polymerase. Attenuation occurs commonly in bacteria, but was not previously known to operate in eukaryotic cells (those with a nucleus).

“In response to an inducing stress signal, attenuation must be overcome so that a target gene can be expressed,” said Levin. “The way that works in this instance is that an activating transcription factor, called Mpk1, serves double duty—it is first responsible for recruitment of the RNA polymerase to the promoter, but Mpk1 then binds to the transcribing polymerase to block association of the termination complex.”

Mutations in a human protein, called Senataxin, which is related to a component of the yeast termination complex, are responsible for causing juvenile-onset forms of ALS and ataxia, two neuromuscular degenerative diseases.

In their newest research, Levin and Kim show that the discovered attenuation mechanism is evolutionarily conserved in humans. “The findings of this research have broad implications that translate to human cells,” said Levin. “We know that when the key yeast proteins are replaced by their human counterparts, they are able to engage in the same interactions to exert control over attenuation.”

Levin believes that attenuation is actually a widespread phenomenon. “Approximately 10% of yeast genes appear to be under attenuation control, which suggests that it may also be common in humans,” said Levin. “This opens the door to the possibility of new approaches to therapeutic gene silencing, now that we know transcriptional attenuation operates in eukaryotic cells and that it’s a regulated process.”

About Boston University Henry M. Goldman School of Dental Medicine

The mission of Boston University Henry M. Goldman School of Dental Medicine is to provide excellent education to dental professionals throughout their careers; to shape the future of dental medicine and dental education through research; to offer excellent health care services to the community; to participate in community activities; and to foster a respectful and supportive environment.

Originally established in 1848 as the New England Female Medical College, and incorporated into Boston University in 1873, Boston University School of Medicine today is a leading academic medical center with an enrollment of more than 700 medical students and more than 800 masters and PhD students. Its 1,246 full and part-time faculty members generated more than $335 million in funding in the 2009-2010 academic year for research in amyloidosis, arthritis, cardiovascular disease, cancer, infectious disease, pulmonary disease and dermatology among others. The School is affiliated with Boston Medical Center, its principal teaching hospital, the Boston and Bedford Veterans Administration Medical Centers and 16 other regional hospitals as well as the Boston HealthNet.

Boston University Researcher’s "Desert Development Corridor" Plan Accepted by Egypt’s Government

March 1st, 2011 in College and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, International, News Releases, Science & Technology 0 comments

Contact: Kira Jastive, 617-358-1240 |

(Boston) – A visionary plan for a “Desert Development Corridor” in Egypt, researched and created by Boston University geologist Dr. Farouk El-Baz, has been adopted by the country’s interim government as its flagship program. According to El-Baz, the plan – which includes the construction, along 1,200 kilometers, of a new eight-lane superhighway, a railway, a water pipeline, and a power line – would open new land for urban development, commerce, agriculture, tourism and related jobs. It installs new transportation routes to an undeveloped area of desert running parallel to the Nile River Valley and Delta.

The Egyptian-born El-Baz, director of BU’s Center for Remote Sensing, has for decades been researching Egypt’s deserts using satellite imagery and space-age techniques. He had originally proposed the plan to Egypt’s former government in 1985. Following the recent revolution, El-Baz traveled to Egypt to meet with government leaders and the general public to explain the plan that would reinvigorate the country and expand the living space near the banks of the Nile River.

“This project includes opening up a vast strip of Egypt just west of the narrow living area along the Nile that can be utilized in establishing housing communities, expanding agriculture, initiating industrial compounds, and enhancing the potential of tourism,” said El-Baz. “Most importantly, the activity opens up the possibility of a bright future for the young generation. One that is full of new opportunities where they may innovate and excel.”

The Development Corridor plan has been highly popular among young Egyptians, with several university student clubs and six Facebook pages devoted to the project. El-Baz has lectured extensively about the project at Egyptian universities.

El-Baz’s idea has two components: first, an axis composed of a north-south running eight-lane highway, a high-speed train, an electricity line, and a water pipeline for human consumption along the 1,200 kilometer strip of desert; and second, 12 east-west axes that connect large population centers to the north-south corridor.

According to El-Baz, the project would begin with the east-west connectors to ease the pressure on high population density centers and provide immediate job opportunities. He estimates that this phase would take approximately five years to complete. The second period, another five years, would be required to complete the infrastructure of the north-south segment.

El-Baz has suggested to the government that the project be run by an internationally recognized Board of Trustees and initial funding should be sought from bonds to be offered to the Egyptian people – the “owners” of the project, according to El-Baz.

Details of the project have been laid out in El-Baz’s book (Development Corridor: Securing a Better Future for Egypt), published in Cairo in 2007. The book served as the basis for technical evaluation and feasibility studies, the latter indicating that the infrastructure of the project would cost approximately $24 billion.

El-Baz, a veteran of NASA’s Apollo program of lunar exploration, is well-known for his role in the selection of landing sites for the Apollo missions and the training of the astronauts in visual observations and photography. He is a pioneer in applying space images in the fields of geology, geography and archaeology. Under his direction, the Boston University Center for Remote Sensing was selected in 1997 by NASA as a “Center of Excellence in Remote Sensing.”

Founded in 1839, Boston University is an internationally recognized institution of higher education and research. With more than 30,000 students, it is the fourth largest independent university in the United States. BU consists of 17 colleges and schools along with a number of multi-disciplinary centers and institutes which are central to the school’s research and teaching mission.

Boston University School of Medicine Researchers Receive NIMH Brain Awards

February 7th, 2011 in News Releases, School of Medicine, Science & Technology 0 comments

Contact: Gina M. Digravio, 617-638-8491 |

(Boston) – Two Boston University School of Medicine (BUSM) faculty members, Pietro Cottone, PhD, an assistant professor of pharmacology and psychiatry and Michael Silverstein, MD, an associate professor of pediatrics, were each awarded the prestigious National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) Biobehavioral Research Awards for Innovative New Scientisits (BRAINS) grant with ten other investigators from around the country. The BRAINS award called for innovative and groundbreaking research projects from early stage investigators to explore the complex mechanisms underlying mental disorders or novel treatments and prevention strategies.

The BRAINS initiative was created to support the research programs and career development of outstanding scientists who are in the early, formative stages of their careers and who plan to make a long term commitment to research most relevant to NIMH. This award seeks to assist these individuals in launching an innovative clinical, translational, or basic research program that holds the potential to profoundly transform the understanding, diagnosis, treatment, or prevention of mental disorders.

Cottone, whose research explores the neural mechanisms underlying addictive disorders summarizes his proposal. ”We propose that a history of dieting and relapse represents a vicious circle between stress and compulsive eating. In other words, the next attempt to avoid junk food is going to be more painful and stressful than the previous one, and the likelihood of relapse will progressively increase. We propose that during dieting the endocannabinoids (chemicals of the brains that protect from stress and promote the consumption of our favorite foods) are released to try to fight this stressful condition but on the other side they also increase our craving for junk food. Therefore blockade of the endocannabinoid action on one hand reduces compulsive eating, but on the other hand it induces anxiety and depression. This proposal will clarify the mechanisms linking eating disorders and obesity to anxiety and mood disorders.”

Silverstein is studying maternal depression and is exploring detection and treatment options in the community setting, using for example, programs like Head Start and Early Intervention. He is experimenting with motivational interviewing and cognitive behavior therapy. “Our project is a community-based maternal depression prevention trial that enrolls young mothers at risk for developing major depressive disorder. The project takes place in Head Start and aims to enroll 230 women over five years.”

“While these awards fund specific projects, they are truly an investment in specific people,” said NIMH director Thomas R. Insel, MD. Inspired by the success of the NIH Director’s Pioneer Awards and New Innovator Awards, both of which are designed to provide support for innovative research that has the potential for unusually high impact on health science. “The hope is that BRAINS awards will give early stage investigators enough flexibility to take risks on tough problems that are central to neuroscience and to the understanding of mental illness, such as the nature and development of neural circuits and the genetic factors and environmental influences that both shape and disrupt them,” he adds.

The BRAINS program awards up to $1.625 million over five years for early career scientists focusing on a gap area identified in the Institute’s Strategic Plan.

New Measurement of the Muon Lifetime Provides Key to Determining Strength of Weak Nuclear Force

February 4th, 2011 in College and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, News Releases, Science & Technology 0 comments

Contact: Patrick Farrell, 617-358-1185 |

(Villigen, Switzerland) — After a decade of experimental development, data-taking, and analysis, an international research team led by scientists from Boston University and the University of Illinois has announced a new value for the muon lifetime. The new lifetime measurement—the most precise ever made of any subatomic particle—makes possible a new determination of the strength of the weak nuclear force. Experiments for this research were conducted using the proton accelerator facility of the Paul Scherrer Institute (PSI) in Villigen, Switzerland. The results were published in the January 25, 2011 issue of the journal Physical Review Letters. *

How strong is the weak force?

The weak force is one of the four fundamental forces of nature. Although rarely encountered in everyday life, the weak force is at the heart of many elemental physical processes, including those responsible for making the sun shine. All four of the fundamental forces are characterized by coupling constants, which describe their strength. The famous constant G, in Newton’s law of gravitation, determines the gravitational attraction between any two massive objects. The fine structure constant determines the strength of the electrostatic force between charged particles. The coupling constant for the weak interactions, known as the Fermi constant, is also essential for calculations in the world of elementary particles. Today, physicists regard the weak and the electromagnetic interaction as two aspects of one and the same interaction. Proof of that relationship, established in the 1970s, was an important breakthrough in our understanding of the subatomic world.

Muon lifetime – key to the strength of the weak force

The new value of the Fermi constant was determined by an extremely precise measurement of the muon lifetime. The muon is an unstable subatomic particle which decays with a lifetime of approximately two microseconds (two millionths of a second). This decay is governed by the weak force only, and the muon’s lifetime has a relatively simple relationship to the strength of the weak force. “To determine the Fermi constant from the muon lifetime requires elegant and precise theory, but until 1999, the theory was not as good as the experiments,” says David Hertzog, professor of physics at the University of Washington. (At the time of the experiment, Hertzog was at the University of Illinois.) “Then, several breakthroughs essentially eliminated the theoretical uncertainty. The largest uncertainty in the Fermi constant determination was now based on how well the muon lifetime had been measured.”

Measuring procedure repeated 100 billion times – precision of the measurement two millionths of a millionth of a second

The MuLan (Muon Lifetime Analysis) experiment used muons produced at PSI’s proton accelerator—the most powerful source of muons in the world and the only place where this kind of experiment can be done. “At the heart of the experiment were special targets that caught groups of positively charged muons during a ‘muon fill period,’” says PSI’s Bernhard Lauss. “The beam was then rapidly switched off, leaving approximately 20 muons in the target. Each muon would eventually decay, typically ejecting an energetic positron—a positively charged electron—to indicate its demise. The positrons were detected using a soccer-ball shaped array of 170 detectors, which surrounded the target.” Boston University physics professor Robert Carey adds, “We repeated this procedure for 100 billion muon fills, accumulating trillions of individual decays. By the end, we had recorded more than 100 terabytes of data, far more than we could handle by ourselves. Instead, the data was stored and analyzed at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) in Illinois.” A distribution of how long each muon lived before it decayed was created from the raw data and then fit to determine the mean lifetime: 2.1969803 ±0.0000022 microseconds. The uncertainty is approximately 2 millionths of a millionth of a second – a world record.

*D. M. Webber et al. (MuLan Collaboration), “Measurement of the Positive Muon Lifetime and Determination of the Fermi Constant to Part-per-Million Precision.” Physical Review Letters. 106, 041803 (2011) [5 pages]. An abstract of the article is available at

The collaboration

The experiments were performed at the Paul Scherrer Institute by an international collaboration including scientists from the following institutions:

Department of Physics
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Urbana, Illinois 61801, USA Department of Physics and Computational Science
Regis University
Denver, Colorado 80221, USA

Department of Physics and Astronomy
University of Kentucky
Lexington, Kentucky 40506, USA
Department of Mathematics and Physics
Kentucky Wesleyan College
Owensboro, Kentucky 42301, USA

Department of Physics
Boston University
Boston, Massachusetts 02215, USA
Paul Scherrer Institute
CH-5232 Villigen PSI, Switzerland

Department of Physics
James Madison University
Harrisonburg, Virginia 22807, USA KVI
University of Groningen
NL-9747AA Groningen, The Netherlands

About the Paul Scherrer Institute (PSI)—The PSI develops, builds and operates large-scale, complex research facilities, and makes these facilities available to the national and international research community. The Institute’s own research focuses on solid-state physics and the materials sciences, elementary particle physics, biology and medicine, as well as research involving energy and the environment. With a workforce of 1400 and an annual budget of about 300 million CHF, PSI is the largest research institution in Switzerland.

About Boston University—Founded in 1839, Boston University is an internationally recognized institution of higher education and research. With more than 30,000 students, it is the fourth largest independent university in the United States. BU contains 17 colleges and schools along with a number of multi-disciplinary centers and institutes which are central to the school’s research and teaching mission.

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Prof. Robert Carey
Department of Physics
Boston University
590 Commonwealth Avenue
Boston, MA 02215, USA
Phone: +1 (617) 353 6031

Prof. David Hertzog
Department of Physics
University of Washington
Box 351560, Seattle, WA 98195-1560, USA
Phone: +1 (206) 543-0839

Dr. Bernhard Lauss
Laboratory for Particle Physics,
Paul Scherrer Institut,
CH-5232 Villigen PSI, Switzerland,
Phone: +41(0)56 310 46 47

For high-resolutions images related to this article, contact:

Dagmar Baroke, M.A.
Abteilungsleiterin Kommunikation
Paul Scherrer Institut
CH-5232 Villigen PSI
Tel: 056/310 29 16
Fax: 056/310 27 17

Endangered Species Review and Interim Protections Sought for Little Brown Bats

December 17th, 2010 in College and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, News Releases, Science & Technology 0 comments

Contact: Patrick Farrell, 617-358-1185 |

(Boston)— Scientists and conservation groups filed a formal request today asking the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to determine if little brown bats, once the most common bat species in the Northeast, need protection under the Endangered Species Act because of a fast-spreading, lethal disease called white-nose syndrome. The disease has already killed more than a million bats in the United States and scientists say it could wipe out little brown bats in the Northeast within the next two decades.

“The little brown bat is in imminent danger of extinction in its northeastern core range due to white-nose syndrome, and the species is likely in danger of extinction throughout North America,” said Dr. Thomas H. Kunz, a leading authority on bats at Boston University who coauthored a study earlier this year on the impacts of white-nose syndrome on the little brown bat.

Kunz and another bat scientist, Dr. Jonathan D. Reichard, conducted their own status review of the species that was submitted along with today’s request to the Fish and Wildlife Service. The review found that the little brown bat is at grave risk of disappearing from the region because of the impacts of white-nose syndrome, a disease first documented in upstate New York in 2006 that has already spread throughout the eastern United States as well as Quebec and Ontario. In some affected bat colonies in the Northeast, mortality rates from white-nose syndrome have been nearly 100 percent.

“The little brown bat desperately needs protection under the Endangered Species Act,” said Mollie Matteson, conservation advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity. “Losing this species would be a tragedy that would have disastrous consequences for people and other wildlife.”

The bat die-off has caused significant concern among biologists and conservation groups, not only because of potential extinction of one or more species but also because the night-flying mammals play a critical role in keeping insect populations in check. Based on earlier work by Kunz and others, scientists estimate that the loss of bats due to white-nose syndrome has, to date, meant upwards of 700 fewer tons of insects consumed per year, including many pests that attack farm crops and commercial timber. One consequence of fewer bats may be greater use of pesticides.

Based on the dire threat to the little brown bat from white-nose syndrome, the scientists and conservation groups today recommended that the Fish and Wildlife Service place the little brown bat on the federal endangered species list as an emergency measure until the agency can complete its own assessment and make a final ruling.

“If the little brown bat, one of America’s most common and widespread bats, is facing regional, and possibly total, extinction, imagine the threat to less-adaptable and far-reaching species,” said Nina Fascione, executive director of Bat Conservation International. “More than half of the 46 U.S. bat species are potentially susceptible to white-nose syndrome. We must protect the survivors before time runs out.”

Meanwhile, the Fish and Wildlife Service is, until Dec. 26, accepting public comments on its draft plan for addressing white-nose syndrome. And the Service is due to decide on a petition filed by the Center for Biological Diversity to provide Endangered Species Act protections for the northern long-eared bat and the eastern small-footed bat, two other species seriously affected by white-nose syndrome.

Groups signing on in support of the status assessment request are Kunz and Reichard’s Center for Ecology and Conservation Biology at Boston University, Friends of Blackwater Canyon, Wildlife Advocacy Project, Bat Conservation International and the Center for Biological Diversity.

Thoreau’s study of birds at Walden Pond aids BU biologists in climate change research

December 13th, 2010 in College and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, News Releases, Science & Technology 0 comments

Contact: Patrick Farrell, 617-358-1185 |

(Boston) – Boston University biology Professor Richard Primack, graduate student Elizabeth Ellwood, and recent graduate Michelle Talmadge completed an analysis of the changing arrival dates of migratory birds to Concord, Mass., that includes observations by Henry David Thoreau from the 1850s. This research builds on earlier work by Primack and his students showing plants in Concord respond rapidly to temperature and are now flowering 10
days earlier than in the time of Thoreau.

Thoreau’s records and subsequent observations up to the present of bird arrival times around Walden Pond are being used to study the effects of global climate change. In a soon to be published article in the journal Condor, Primack and Ellwood show that some birds, such as the Yellow-rumped Warbler and Chipping Sparrow, are arriving earlier in warmer years and later in cold years. This study is particularly significant as it represents the longest time span over which bird arrival times have been scientifically observed.

The study indicates that Concord birds are not responding to warming temperatures as fast as plants, and that they may miss the peak abundance of insect food in the spring, if insects are also responding as rapidly as plants. The concern here is that birds may not find enough insects to feed their hungry nestlings, and the baby birds will starve to death. “Insects are the missing link between plants and birds and this is the next area of focus in our lab,” said Ellwood.

Founded in 1839, Boston University is an internationally recognized private research university with more than 30,000 students participating in undergraduate, graduate, and professional programs.

Ellwood, E., R. B. Primack, and M. Talmadge. 2010. Effects of climate change on spring bird
arrival times in Thoreau’s Concord from 1851 to 2007. Condor 112: 754-762.