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    Divorce is more common in albatross couples with shy males, study finds

    The wandering albatross is the poster bird for avian monogamy. The graceful glider is known to mate for life, partnering up with the same bird to breed, season after season, between long flights at sea.

    But on rare occasions, an albatross pair will “divorce” — a term ornithologists use for instances when one partner leaves the pair for another mate while the other partner remains in the flock. Divorce rates vary widely across the avian world, and the divorce rate for wandering albatrosses is relatively low.

    Nevertheless, the giant drifters can split up. Scientists at MIT and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) have found that, at least for one particular population of wandering albatross, whether a pair will divorce boils down to one important factor: personality. 

    In a study appearing today in the journal Biology Letters, the team reports that an albatross couple’s chance of divorce is highly influenced by the male partner’s “boldness.” The bolder and more aggressive the male, the more likely the pair is to stay together. The shyer the male, the higher the chance that the pair will divorce.

    The researchers say their study is the first to link personality and divorce in a wild animal species.

    “We thought that bold males, being more aggressive, would be more likely to divorce, because they would be more likely to take the risk of switching partners to improve future reproductive outcomes,” says study senior author Stephanie Jenouvrier, an associate scientist and seabird ecologist in WHOI’s FLEDGE Lab. “Instead we find the shy divorce more because they are more likely to be forced to divorce by a more competitive intruder. We expect personality may impact divorce rates in many species, but in different ways.”

    Lead author Ruijiao Sun, a graduate student in the MIT-WHOI Joint Program and MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, says that this new evidence of a link between personality and divorce in the wandering albatross may help scientists predict the resilience of the population.

    “The wandering albatross is a vulnerable species,” Sun says. “Understanding the effect of personality on divorce is important because it can help researchers predict the consequences for population dynamics, and implement conservation efforts.”

    The study’s co-authors include Joanie Van de Walle of WHOI, Samantha Patrick of the University of Liverpool, and Christophe Barbraud, Henri Weimerskirch, and Karine Delord of CNRS- La Rochelle University in France.

    Repeat divorcées

    The new study concentrates on a population of wandering albatross that return regularly to Possession Island in the Southern Indian Ocean to breed. This population has been the focus of a long-term study dating back to the 1950s, in which researchers have been monitoring the birds each breeding season and recording the pairings and breakups of individuals through the years.

    This particular population is skewed toward more male individuals than females because the foraging grounds of female albatrosses overlap with fishing vessels, where they are more prone to being accidentally caught in fishing lines as bycatch.  

    In earlier research, Sun analyzed data from this long-term study and picked up a curious pattern: Those individuals that divorced were more likely to do so again and again.

    “Then we wanted to know, what drives divorce, and why are some individuals divorcing more often,” Jenouvrier says. “In humans, you see this repetitive divorce pattern as well, linked to personality. And the wandering albatross is one of the rare species for which we have both demographic and personality data.”

    That personality data comes from an ongoing study that began in 2008 and is led by co-author Patrick, who has been measuring the personality of individuals among the same population of wandering albatross on Possession Island. In the study of animal behavior, personality is defined as a consistent behavioral difference displayed by an individual. Biologists mainly measure personality in animals as a gradient between shy and bold, or less to more aggressive.

    In Patrick’s study, researchers have measured boldness in albatrosses by gauging a bird’s reaction to a human approaching its nest, from a distance of about 5 meters. A bird is assigned a score depending on how it reacts (a bird that does not respond scores a zero, being the most shy, while a bird that lifts its head, and even stands up, can score higher, being the most bold).

    Patrick has made multiple personality assessments of the same individuals over multiple years. Sun and Jenouvrier wondered: Could an individual’s personality have anything to do with their chance to divorce?

    “We had seen this repetitive divorce pattern, and then talked with Sam (Patrick) to see, could this be related to personality?” Sun recalls. “We know that personality predicts divorce in human beings, and it would be intuitive to make the link between personality and divorce in wild populations.”

    Shy birds

    In their new study, the team used data from both the demographic and personality studies to see whether any patterns between the two emerged. They applied a statistical model to both datasets, to test whether the personality of individuals in an albatross pair affected the fate of that pair.

    They found that for females, personality had little to do with whether the birds divorced. But in males, the pattern was clear: Those that were identified as shy were more likely to divorce, while bolder males stayed with their partner.

    “Divorce does not happen very often,” Jenouvrier says. “But we found that the shyer a bird is, the more likely they are to divorce.”

    But why? In their study, the team puts forth an explanation, which ecologists call “forced divorce.” They point out that, in this particular population of wandering albatross, males far outnumber females and therefore are more likely to compete with each other for mates. Males that are already partnered up, therefore, may be faced with a third “intruder” — a male who is competing for a place in the pair.

    “When there is a third intruder that competes, shy birds could step away and give away their mates, where bolder individuals are aggressive and will guard their partner and secure their partnership,” Sun explains. “That’s why shyer individuals may have higher divorce rates.”

    The team is planning to extend their work to examine how the personality of individuals can affect how the larger population changes and evolves. 

    “Now we’re talking about a connection between personality and divorce at the individual level,” Sun says. “But we want to understand the impact at the population level.”

    This research was supported, in part, by the National Science Foundation. More

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    J-WAFS awards $150K Solutions grant to Patrick Doyle and team for rapid removal of micropollutants from water

    The Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab (J-WAFS) has awarded a 2022 J-WAFS Solutions grant to Patrick S. Doyle, the Robert T. Haslam Professor of Chemical Engineering at MIT, for his innovative system to tackle water pollution. Doyle will be working with co-Principal Investigator Rafael Gomez-Bombarelli, assistant professor in materials processing in the Department of Materials Science, as well as PhD students Devashish Gokhale and Tynan Perez. Building off of findings from a 2019 J-WAFS seed grant, Doyle and the research team will create cost-effective industry-scale processes to remove micropollutants from water. Project work will commence this month.

    The J-WAFS Solutions program provides one-year, renewable, commercialization grants to help move MIT technology from the laboratory to market. Grants of up to $150,000 are awarded to researchers with breakthrough technologies and inventions in water or food. Since its launch in 2015, J-WAFS Solutions grants have led to seven spinout companies and helped commercialize two products as open-source technologies. The grant program is supported by Community Jameel.

    A widespread problem 

    Micropollutants are contaminants that occur in low concentrations in the environment, yet continuous exposure and bioaccumulation of micropollutants make them a cause for concern. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the plastics derivative Bisphenol A (BPA), the “forever chemicals” per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), and heavy metals like lead are common micropollutants known to be found in more than 85 percent of rivers, ponds, and lakes in the United States. Many of these bodies of water are sources of drinking water. Over long periods of time, exposure to micropollutants through drinking water can cause physiological damage in humans, increasing the risk of cancer, developmental disorders, and reproductive failure.

    Since micropollutants occur in low concentrations, it is difficult to detect and monitor their presence, and the chemical diversity of micropollutants makes it difficult to inexpensively remove them from water. Currently, activated carbon is the industry standard for micropollutant elimination, but this method cannot efficiently remove contaminants at parts-per-billion and parts-per-trillion concentrations. There are also strong sustainability concerns associated with activated carbon production, which is energy-intensive and releases large volumes of carbon dioxide.

    A solution with societal and economic benefits

    Doyle and his team are developing a technology that uses sustainable hydrogel microparticles to remove micropollutants from water. The polymeric hydrogel microparticles use chemically anchored structures including micelles and other chelating agents that act like a sponge by absorbing organic micropollutants and heavy metal ions. The microparticles are large enough to separate from water using simple gravitational settling. The system is sustainable because the microparticles can be recycled for continuous use. In testing, the long-lasting, reusable microparticles show quicker removal of contaminants than commercial activated carbon. The researchers plan to utilize machine learning to find optimal microparticle compositions that maximize performance on complex combinations of micropollutants in simulated and real wastewater samples.

    Economically, the technology is a new offering that has applications in numerous large markets where micropollutant elimination is vital, including municipal and industrial water treatment equipment, as well as household water purification systems. The J-WAFS Solutions grant will allow the team to build and test prototypes of the water treatment system, identify the best use cases and customers, and perform technoeconomic analyses and market research to formulate a preliminary business plan. With J-WAFS commercialization support, the project could eventually lead to a startup company.

    “Emerging micropollutants are a growing threat to drinking water supplies worldwide,” says J-WAFS Director John H. Lienhard, the Abdul Latif Jameel Professor of Water at MIT. “Cost-effective and scalable technologies for micropollutant removal are urgently needed. This project will develop and commercialize a promising new tool for water treatment, with the goal of improving water quality for millions of people.” More

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    High-energy and hungry for the hardest problems

    A high school track star and valedictorian, Anne White has always relished moving fast and clearing high hurdles. Since joining the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering (NSE) in 2009 she has produced path-breaking fusion research, helped attract a more diverse cohort of students and scholars into the discipline, and, during a worldwide pandemic, assumed the role of department head as well as co-lead of an Institute-wide initiative to address climate change. For her exceptional leadership, innovation, and accomplishments in education and research, White was named the School of Engineering Distinguished Professor of Engineering in July 2020.

    But White declares little interest in recognition or promotions. “I don’t care about all that stuff,” she says. She’s in the race for much bigger stakes. “I want to find ways to save the world with nuclear,” she says.

    Tackling turbulence

    It was this goal that drew White to MIT. Her research, honed during graduate studies at the University of California at Los Angeles, involved developing a detailed understanding of conditions inside fusion devices, and resolving issues critical to realizing the vision of fusion energy — a carbon-free, nearly limitless source of power generated by 150-million-degree plasma.

    Harnessing this superheated, gaseous form of matter requires a special donut-shaped device called a tokamak, which contains the plasma within magnetic fields. When White entered fusion around the turn of the millennium, models of plasma behavior in tokamaks didn’t reliably match observed or experimental conditions. She was determined to change that picture, working with MIT’s state-of-the-art research tokamak, Alcator C-Mod.

    Play video

    Alcator C-Mod Tokamak Tour

    White believed solving the fusion puzzle meant getting a handle on plasma turbulence — the process by which charged atomic particles, breaking out of magnetic confinement, transport heat from the core to the cool edges of the tokamak. Although researchers knew that fusion energy depends on containing and controlling the heat of plasma reactions, White recalls that when she began grad school, “it was not widely accepted that turbulence was important, and that it was central to heat transport. She “felt it was critical to compare experimental measurements to first principles physics models, so we could demonstrate the significance of turbulence and give tokamak models better predictive ability.”

    In a series of groundbreaking studies, White’s team created the tools for measuring turbulence in different conditions, and developed computational models that could account for variations in turbulence, all validated by experiments. She was one of the first fusion scientists both to perform experiments and conduct simulations. “We lived in the domain between these two worlds,” she says.

    White’s turbulence models opened up approaches for managing turbulence and maximizing tokamak performance, paving the way for net-energy fusion energy devices, including ITER, the world’s largest fusion experiment, and SPARC, a compact, high-magnetic-field tokamak, a collaboration between MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center and Commonwealth Fusion Systems.

    Laser-focused on turbulence

    Growing up in the desert city of Yuma, Arizona, White spent her free time outdoors, hiking and camping. “I was always in the space of protecting the environment,” she says. The daughter of two lawyers who taught her “to argue quickly and efficiently,” she excelled in math and physics in high school. Awarded a full ride at the University of Arizona, she was intent on a path in science, one where she could tackle problems like global warming, as it was known then. Physics seemed like the natural concentration for her.

    But there was unexpected pushback. The physics advisor believed her physics grades were lackluster. “I said, ‘Who cares what this guy thinks; I’ll take physics classes anyway,’” recalls White. Being tenacious and “thick skinned,” says White, turned out to be life-altering. “I took nuclear physics, which opened my eyes to fission, which then set me off on a path of understanding nuclear power and advanced nuclear systems,” she says. Math classes introduced her to chaotic systems, and she decided she wanted to study turbulence. Then, at a Society of Physics Students meeting White says she attended for the free food, she learned about fusion.

    “I realized this was what I wanted to do,” says White. “I became totally laser focused on turbulence and tokamaks.”

    At UCLA, she began to develop instruments and methods for measuring and modeling plasma turbulence, working on three different fusion research reactors, and earning fellowships from the Department of Energy (DOE) during her graduate and post-graduate years in fusion energy science. At MIT, she received a DOE Early Career Award that enabled her to build a research team that she now considers her “legacy.”

    As she expanded her research portfolio, White was also intent on incorporating fusion into the NSE curriculum at the undergraduate and graduate level, and more broadly, on making NSE a destination for students concerned about climate change. In recognition of her efforts, she received the 2014 Junior Bose Teaching Award. She also helped design the EdX course, Nuclear Engineering: Science, Systems and Society, introducing thousands of online learners to the potential of the field. “I have to be in the classroom,” she says. “I have to be with students, interacting, and sharing knowledge and lines of inquiry with them.”

    But even as she deepened her engagement with teaching and with her fusion research, which was helping spur development of new fusion energy technologies, White could not resist leaping into a consequential new undertaking: chairing the department. “It sounds cheesy, but I did it for my kid,” she says. “I can be helpful working on fusion, but I thought, what if I can help more by enabling other people across all areas of nuclear? This department gave me so much, I wanted to give back.”

    Although the pandemic struck just months after she stepped into the role in 2019, White propelled the department toward a new strategic plan. “It captures all the urgency and passion of the faculty, and is attractive to new students, with more undergraduates enrolling and more graduate students applying,” she says. White sees the department advancing the broader goals of the field, “articulating why nuclear is fundamentally important across many dimensions for carbon-free electricity and generation.” This means getting students involved in advanced fission technologies such as nuclear batteries and small modular reactors, as well as giving them an education in fusion that will help catalyze a nascent energy industry.

    Restless for a challenge

    White feels she’s still growing into the leadership role. “I’m really enthusiastic and sometimes too intense for people, so I have to dial it back during challenging conversations,” she says. She recently completed a Harvard Business School course on leadership.

    As the recently named co-chair of MIT’s Climate Nucleus (along with Professor Noelle Selin), charged with overseeing MIT’s campus initiatives around climate change, White says she draws on a repertoire of skills that come naturally to her: listening carefully, building consensus, and seeing value in the diversity of opinion. She is optimistic about mobilizing the Institute around goals to lower MIT’s carbon footprint, “using the entire campus as a research lab,” she says.

    In the midst of this push, White continues to advance projects of concern to her, such as making nuclear physics education more accessible. She developed an in-class module involving a simple particle detector for measuring background radiation. “Any high school or university student could build this experiment in 10 minutes and see alpha particle clusters and muons,” she says.

    White is also planning to host “Rising Stars,” an international conference intended to help underrepresented groups break barriers to entry in the field of nuclear science and engineering. “Grand intellectual challenges like saving the world appeal to all genders and backgrounds,” she says.

    These projects, her departmental and institutional duties, and most recently a new job chairing DOE’s Fusion Energy Sciences Advisory Committee leave her precious little time for a life outside work. But she makes time for walks and backpacking with her husband and toddler son, and reading the latest books by female faculty colleagues, such as “The New Breed,” by Media Lab robotics researcher Kate Darling, and “When People Want Punishment,” by Lily Tsai, Ford Professor of Political Science. “There are so many things I don’t know and want to understand,” says White.

    Yet even at leisure, White doesn’t slow down. “It’s restlessness: I love to learn, and anytime someone says a problem is hard, or impossible, I want to tackle it,” she says. There’s no time off, she believes, when the goal is “solving climate change and amplifying the work of other people trying to solve it.” More

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    Promoting systemic change in the Middle East, the “MIT way”

    The Middle East is a region that is facing complicated challenges. MIT programs have been committed to building scalable methodologies through which students and the broader MIT community can learn and make an impact. These processes ensure programs work alongside others across cultures to support change aligned with their needs. Through MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI), faculty and staff at the Institute continue to build opportunities to connect with and support the region.

    In this spirit, MISTI launched the Leaders Journey Workshop in 2021. This program partnered MIT students with Palestinian and Israeli alumni from three associate organizations: Middle East Entrepreneurs for Tomorrow (MEET), Our Generation Speaks (OGS), and Tech2Peace. Teams met monthly to engage with speakers and work with one another to explore the best ways to leverage science, technology, and entrepreneurship across borders.

    Building on the success of this workshop, the program piloted a for-credit course: SP.258 (MISTI: Middle East Cross-Border Development and Leadership) in fall 2021. The course involved engaging with subject matter experts through five mini-consulting projects in collaboration with regional stakeholders. Topics included climate, health care, and economic development. The course was co-instructed by associate director of the MIT Regional Entrepreneurship Acceleration Program (REAP) Sinan AbuShanab, managing director of MISTI programs in the Middle East David Dolev, and Kathleen Schwind ’19, with MIT CIS/ MISTI Research Affiliate Steven Koltai as lead mentor. The course also drew support from alumni mentors and regional industry partners.

    The course was developed during the height of the pandemic and thus successfully leveraged the intense culture of online engagement prevalent at the time by layering in-person coursework with strategic digital group engagement. Pedagogically, the structure was inspired by multiple MIT methodologies: MISTI preparation and training courses, Sloan Action Learning, REAP/REAL multi-party stakeholder model, the Media Lab Learning Initiative, and the multicultural framework of associate organizations.

    “We worked to develop a series of aims and a methodology that would enrich MIT students and their peers in the region and support the important efforts of Israelis and Palestinians to make systemic change,” said Dolev.

    During the on-campus sessions, MIT students explored the region’s political and historical complexities and the meaning of being a global leader and entrepreneur. Guest presenters included: Boston College Associate Professor Peter Krause (MIT Security Studies Program alumnus), Gilad Rosenzweig (MITdesignX), Ari Jacobovits (MIT-Africa), and Mollie Laffin-Rose Agbiboa (MIT-REAP). Group projects focused on topics that fell under three key regional verticals: water, health care, and economic development. The teams were given a technical or business challenge they were tasked with solving. These challenges were sourced directly from for-profit and nonprofit organizations in the region.

    “This was a unique opportunity for me to learn so much about the area I live in, work on a project together with people from the ‘other side,’ MIT students, and incredible mentors,” shared a participant from the region. “Furthermore, getting a glimpse of the world of MIT was a great experience for me.”

    For their final presentations, teams pitched their solutions, including their methodology for researching/addressing the problem, a description of solutions to be applied, what is needed to execute the idea itself, and potential challenges encountered. Teams received feedback and continued to deepen their experience in cross-cultural teamwork.

    “As an education manager, I needed guidance with these digital tools and how to approach them,” says an EcoPeace representative. “The MIT program provided me with clear deliverables I can now implement in my team’s work.”

    “This course has broadened my knowledge of conflicts, relationships, and how geography plays an important role in the region,” says an MIT student participant. “Moving forward, I feel more confident working with business and organizations to develop solutions for problems in real time, using the skills I have to supplement the project work.”

    Layers of engagement with mentors, facilitators, and whole-team leadership ensured that participants gained project management experience, learning objectives were met, and professional development opportunities were available. Each team was assigned an MIT-MEET alumni mentor with whom they met throughout the course. Mentors coached the teams on methods for managing a client project and how to collaborate for successful completion. Joint sessions with MIT guest speakers deepened participants’ regional understanding of water, health care, economic development, and their importance in the region. Speakers included: Mohamed Aburawi, Phil Budden (MIT-REAP) Steven Koltai, Shari Loessberg, Dina Sherif (MIT Legatum Center, Greg Sixt (J-WAFS), and Shriya Srinivasan.

    “The program is unlike any other I’ve come across,” says one of the alumni mentors. “The chance for MIT students to work directly with peers from the region, to propose and create technical solutions to real problems on the ground, and partner with local organizations is an incredibly meaningful opportunity. I wish I had been able to participate in something like this when I was at MIT.”

    Each team also assigned a fellow group member as a facilitator, who served as the main point of contact for the team and oversaw project management: organizing workstreams, ensuring deadlines were met, and mediating any group disagreements. This model led to successful project outcomes and innovative suggestions.

    “The superb work of the MISTI group gave us a critical eye and made significant headway on a product that can hopefully be a game changer to over 150 Israeli and Palestinian organizations,” says a representative from Alliance for Middle East Peace (ALLMEP).

    Leadership team meetings included MIT staff and Israeli and Palestinian leadership of the partner organizations for discussing process, content, recent geopolitical developments, and how to adapt the class to the ongoing changing situation.

    “The topic of Palestine/Israel is contentious: globally, in the region, and also, at times, on the MIT campus,” says Dolev. “I myself have questioned how we can make a systemic impact with our partners from the region. How can we be side-by-side on that journey for the betterment of all? I have now seen first-hand how this multilayered model can work.”

    MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI) is MIT’s hub for global experiences. MISTI’s unparalleled internship, research, teaching, and study abroad programs offer students unique experiences that bring MIT’s one-of-a-kind education model to life in countries around the world. MISTI programs are carefully designed to complement on-campus course work and research, and rigorous, country-specific preparation enables students to forge cultural connections and play a role in addressing important global challenges while abroad. Students come away from their experiences with invaluable perspectives that inform their education, career, and worldview. MISTI embodies MIT’s commitment to global engagement and prepares students to thrive in an increasingly interconnected world. More

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    Assay determines the percentage of Omicron, other variants in Covid wastewater

    Wastewater monitoring emerged amid the Covid-19 pandemic as an effective and noninvasive way to track a viral outbreak, and advances in the technology have enabled researchers to not only identify but also quantify the presence of particular variants of concern (VOCs) in wastewater samples.

    Last year, researchers with the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART) made the news for developing a quantitative assay for the Alpha variant of SARS-CoV-2 in wastewater, while also working on a similar assay for the Delta variant. Previously, conventional wastewater detection methods could only detect the presence of SARS-CoV-2 viral material in a sample, without identifying the variant of the virus.

    Now, a team at SMART has developed a quantitative RT-qPCR assay that can detect the Omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2. This type of assay enables wastewater surveillance to accurately trace variant dynamics in any given community or population, and support and inform the implementation of appropriate public health measures tailored according to the specific traits of a particular viral pathogen.

    The capacity to count and assess particular VOCs is unique to SMART’s open-source assay, and allows researchers to accurately determine displacement trends in a community. Hence, the new assay can reveal what proportion of SARS-CoV-2 virus circulating in a community belongs to a particular variant. This is particularly significant, as different SARS-CoV-2 VOCs — Alpha, Delta, Omicron, and their offshoots — have emerged at various points throughout the pandemic, each causing a new wave of infections to which the population was more susceptible.

    The team’s new allele-specific RT-qPCR assay is described in a paper, “Rapid displacement of SARS-CoV-2 variant Delta by Omicron revealed by allele-specific PCR in wastewater,” published this month in Water Research. Senior author on the work is Eric Alm, professor of biological engineering at MIT and a principal investigator in the Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR) interdisciplinary research group within SMART, MIT’s research enterprise in Singapore. Co-authors include researchers from Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore National University (NUS), MIT, Singapore Centre for Environmental Life Sciences Engineering (SCELSE), and Istituto Zooprofilattico Sperimentale della Lombardia e dell’Emilia Romagna (IZSLER) in Italy.

    Omicron overtakes delta within three weeks in Italy study

    In their study, SMART researchers found that the increase in booster vaccine population coverage in Italy concurred with the complete displacement of the Delta variant by the Omicron variant in wastewater samples obtained from the Torbole Casaglia wastewater treatment plant, with a catchment size of 62,722 people. Taking less than three weeks, the rapid pace of this displacement can be attributed to Omicron’s infection advantage over the previously dominant Delta in vaccinated individuals, which may stem from Omicron’s more efficient evasion of vaccination-induced immunity.

    “In a world where Covid-19 is endemic, the monitoring of VOCs through wastewater surveillance will be an effective tool for the tracking of variants circulating in the community and will play an increasingly important role in guiding public health response,” says paper co-author Federica Armas, a senior postdoc at SMART AMR. “This work has demonstrated that wastewater surveillance can be used to quickly and quantitatively trace VOCs present in a community.”

    Wastewater surveillance vital for future pandemic responses

    As the global population becomes increasingly vaccinated and exposed to prior infections, nations have begun transitioning toward the classification of SARS-CoV-2 as an endemic disease, rolling back active clinical surveillance toward decentralized antigen rapid tests, and consequently reducing sequencing of patient samples. However, SARS-CoV-2 has been shown to produce novel VOCs that can swiftly emerge and spread rapidly across populations, displacing previously dominant variants of the virus. This was observed when Delta displaced Alpha across the globe after the former’s emergence in India in December 2020, and again when Omicron displaced Delta at an even faster rate following its discovery in South Africa in November 2021. The continuing emergence of novel VOCs therefore necessitates continued vigilance on the monitoring of circulating SARS-CoV-2 variants in communities.

    In a separate review paper on wastewater surveillance titled “Making Waves: Wastewater Surveillance of SARS-CoV-2 in an Endemic Future,” published in the journal Water Research, SMART researchers and collaborators found that the utility of wastewater surveillance in the near future could include 1) monitoring the trend of viral loads in wastewater for quantified viral estimates circulating in a community; 2) sampling of wastewater at the source — e.g., taking samples from particular neighborhoods or buildings — for pinpointing infections in neighborhoods and at the building level; 3) integrating wastewater and clinical surveillance for cost-efficient population surveillance; and 4) genome sequencing wastewater samples to track circulating and emerging variants in the population.

    “Our experience with SARS-CoV-2 has shown that clinical testing can often only paint a limited picture of the true extent of an outbreak or pandemic. With Covid-19 becoming prevalent and with the anticipated emergence of further variants of concern, qualitative and quantitative data from wastewater surveillance will be an integral component of a cost- and resource-efficient public health surveillance program, empowering authorities to make more informed policy decisions,” adds corresponding author Janelle Thompson, associate professor at SCELSE and NTU. “Our review provides a roadmap for the wider deployment of wastewater surveillance, with opportunities and challenges that, if addressed, will enable us to not only better manage Covid-19, but also future-proof societies for other viral pathogens and future pandemics.”

    In addition, the review suggests that future wastewater research should comply with a set of standardized wastewater processing methods to reduce inconsistencies in wastewater data toward improving epidemiological inference. Methods developed in the context of SARS-CoV-2 and its analyses could be of invaluable benefit for future wastewater monitoring work on discovering emerging zoonotic pathogens — pathogens that can be transmitted from animals to humans — and for early detection of future pandemics.

    Furthermore, far from being confined to SARS-CoV-2, wastewater surveillance has already been adapted for use in combating other viral pathogens. Another paper from September 2021 described an advance in the development of effective wastewater surveillance for dengue, Zika, and yellow fever viruses, with SMART researchers successfully measuring decay rates of these medically significant arboviruses in wastewater. This was followed by another review paper by SMART published in July 2022 that explored current progress and future challenges and opportunities in wastewater surveillance for arboviruses. These developments represent an important first step toward establishing arbovirus wastewater surveillance, which would help policymakers in Singapore and beyond make better informed and more targeted public health measures in controlling arbovirus outbreaks such as dengue, which is a significant public health concern in Singapore.

    “Our learnings from using wastewater surveillance as a key tool over the course of Covid-19 will be crucial in helping researchers develop similar methods to monitor and tackle other viral pathogens and future pandemics,” says Lee Wei Lin, first author of the latest SMART paper and research scientist at SMART AMR. “Wastewater surveillance has already shown promising utility in helping to fight other viral pathogens, including some of the world’s most prevalent mosquito-borne diseases, and there is significant potential for the technology to be adapted for use against other infectious viral diseases.”

    The research is carried out by SMART and its collaborators at SCELSE, NTU, and NUS, co-led by Professor Eric Alm (SMART and MIT) and Associate Professor Janelle Thompson (SCELSE and NTU), and is supported by Singapore’sNational Research Foundation (NRF) under its Campus for Research Excellence And Technological Enterprise (CREATE) program. The research is part of an initiative funded by the NRF to develop sewage-based surveillance for rapid outbreak detection and intervention in Singapore.

    SMART was established by MIT in partnership with the NRF in 2007. SMART is the first entity in CREATE developed by NRF and serves as an intellectual and innovation hub for research interactions between MIT and Singapore, undertaking cutting-edge research projects in areas of interest to both Singapore and MIT. SMART currently comprises an Innovation Centre and five interdisciplinary research groups: AMR, Critical Analytics for Manufacturing Personalized-Medicine, Disruptive & Sustainable Technologies for Agricultural Precision, Future Urban Mobility, and Low Energy Electronic Systems.

    The AMR IRG is a translational research and entrepreneurship program that tackles the growing threat of antimicrobial resistance. By leveraging talent and convergent technologies across Singapore and MIT, they tackle AMR head-on by developing multiple innovative and disruptive approaches to identify, respond to, and treat drug-resistant microbial infections. Through strong scientific and clinical collaborations, our goal is to provide transformative, holistic solutions for Singapore and the world. More

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    These neurons have food on the brain

    A gooey slice of pizza. A pile of crispy French fries. Ice cream dripping down a cone on a hot summer day. When you look at any of these foods, a specialized part of your visual cortex lights up, according to a new study from MIT neuroscientists.

    This newly discovered population of food-responsive neurons is located in the ventral visual stream, alongside populations that respond specifically to faces, bodies, places, and words. The unexpected finding may reflect the special significance of food in human culture, the researchers say. 

    “Food is central to human social interactions and cultural practices. It’s not just sustenance,” says Nancy Kanwisher, the Walter A. Rosenblith Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience and a member of MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research and Center for Brains, Minds, and Machines. “Food is core to so many elements of our cultural identity, religious practice, and social interactions, and many other things that humans do.”

    The findings, based on an analysis of a large public database of human brain responses to a set of 10,000 images, raise many additional questions about how and why this neural population develops. In future studies, the researchers hope to explore how people’s responses to certain foods might differ depending on their likes and dislikes, or their familiarity with certain types of food.

    MIT postdoc Meenakshi Khosla is the lead author of the paper, along with MIT research scientist N. Apurva Ratan Murty. The study appears today in the journal Current Biology.

    Visual categories

    More than 20 years ago, while studying the ventral visual stream, the part of the brain that recognizes objects, Kanwisher discovered cortical regions that respond selectively to faces. Later, she and other scientists discovered other regions that respond selectively to places, bodies, or words. Most of those areas were discovered when researchers specifically set out to look for them. However, that hypothesis-driven approach can limit what you end up finding, Kanwisher says.

    “There could be other things that we might not think to look for,” she says. “And even when we find something, how do we know that that’s actually part of the basic dominant structure of that pathway, and not something we found just because we were looking for it?”

    To try to uncover the fundamental structure of the ventral visual stream, Kanwisher and Khosla decided to analyze a large, publicly available dataset of full-brain functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) responses from eight human subjects as they viewed thousands of images.

    “We wanted to see when we apply a data-driven, hypothesis-free strategy, what kinds of selectivities pop up, and whether those are consistent with what had been discovered before. A second goal was to see if we could discover novel selectivities that either haven’t been hypothesized before, or that have remained hidden due to the lower spatial resolution of fMRI data,” Khosla says.

    To do that, the researchers applied a mathematical method that allows them to discover neural populations that can’t be identified from traditional fMRI data. An fMRI image is made up of many voxels — three-dimensional units that represent a cube of brain tissue. Each voxel contains hundreds of thousands of neurons, and if some of those neurons belong to smaller populations that respond to one type of visual input, their responses may be drowned out by other populations within the same voxel.

    The new analytical method, which Kanwisher’s lab has previously used on fMRI data from the auditory cortex, can tease out responses of neural populations within each voxel of fMRI data.

    Using this approach, the researchers found four populations that corresponded to previously identified clusters that respond to faces, places, bodies, and words. “That tells us that this method works, and it tells us that the things that we found before are not just obscure properties of that pathway, but major, dominant properties,” Kanwisher says.

    Intriguingly, a fifth population also emerged, and this one appeared to be selective for images of food.

    “We were first quite puzzled by this because food is not a visually homogenous category,” Khosla says. “Things like apples and corn and pasta all look so unlike each other, yet we found a single population that responds similarly to all these diverse food items.”

    The food-specific population, which the researchers call the ventral food component (VFC), appears to be spread across two clusters of neurons, located on either side of the FFA. The fact that the food-specific populations are spread out between other category-specific populations may help explain why they have not been seen before, the researchers say.

    “We think that food selectivity had been harder to characterize before because the populations that are selective for food are intermingled with other nearby populations that have distinct responses to other stimulus attributes. The low spatial resolution of fMRI prevents us from seeing this selectivity because the responses of different neural population get mixed in a voxel,” Khosla says.

    “The technique which the researchers used to identify category-sensitive cells or areas is impressive, and it recovered known category-sensitive systems, making the food category findings most impressive,” says Paul Rozin, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, who was not involved in the study. “I can’t imagine a way for the brain to reliably identify the diversity of foods based on sensory features. That makes this all the more fascinating, and likely to clue us in about something really new.”

    Food vs non-food

    The researchers also used the data to train a computational model of the VFC, based on previous models Murty had developed for the brain’s face and place recognition areas. This allowed the researchers to run additional experiments and predict the responses of the VFC. In one experiment, they fed the model matched images of food and non-food items that looked very similar — for example, a banana and a yellow crescent moon.

    “Those matched stimuli have very similar visual properties, but the main attribute in which they differ is edible versus inedible,” Khosla says. “We could feed those arbitrary stimuli through the predictive model and see whether it would still respond more to food than non-food, without having to collect the fMRI data.”

    They could also use the computational model to analyze much larger datasets, consisting of millions of images. Those simulations helped to confirm that the VFC is highly selective for images of food.

    From their analysis of the human fMRI data, the researchers found that in some subjects, the VFC responded slightly more to processed foods such as pizza than unprocessed foods like apples. In the future they hope to explore how factors such as familiarity and like or dislike of a particular food might affect individuals’ responses to that food.

    They also hope to study when and how this region becomes specialized during early childhood, and what other parts of the brain it communicates with. Another question is whether this food-selective population will be seen in other animals such as monkeys, who do not attach the cultural significance to food that humans do.

    The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health, the National Eye Institute, and the National Science Foundation through the MIT Center for Brains, Minds, and Machines. More

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    Using seismology for groundwater management

    As climate change increases the number of extreme weather events, such as megadroughts, groundwater management is key for sustaining water supply. But current groundwater monitoring tools are either costly or insufficient for deeper aquifers, limiting our ability to monitor and practice sustainable management in populated areas.

    Now, a new paper published in Nature Communications bridges seismology and hydrology with a pilot application that uses seismometers as a cost-effective way to monitor and map groundwater fluctuations.

    “Our measurements are independent from and complementary to traditional observations,” says Shujuan Mao PhD ’21, lead author on the paper. “It provides a new way to dictate groundwater management and evaluate the impact of human activity on shaping underground hydrologic systems.”

    Mao, currently a Thompson Postdoctoral Fellow in the Geophysics department at Stanford University, conducted most of the research during her PhD in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS). Other contributors to the paper include EAPS department chair and Schlumberger Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences Robert van der Hilst, as well as Michel Campillo and Albanne Lecointre from the Institut des Sciences de la Terre in France.

    While there are a few different methods currently used for measuring groundwater, they all come with notable drawbacks. Hydraulic heads, which drill through the ground and into the aquifers, are expensive and can only give limited information at the specific location they’re placed. Noninvasive techniques based on satellite- or airborne-sensing lack the sensitivity and resolution needed to observe deeper depths.

    Mao proposes using seismometers, which are instruments used to measure ground vibrations such as the waves produced by earthquakes. They can measure seismic velocity, which is the propagation speed of seismic waves. Seismic velocity measurements are unique to the mechanical state of rocks, or the ways rocks respond to their physical environment, and can tell us a lot about them.

    The idea of using seismic velocity to characterize property changes in rocks has long been used in laboratory-scale analysis, but only recently have scientists been able to measure it continuously in realistic-scale geological settings. For aquifer monitoring, Mao and her team associate the seismic velocity with the hydraulic property, or the water content, in the rocks.

    Seismic velocity measurements make use of ambient seismic fields, or background noise, recorded by seismometers. “The Earth’s surface is always vibrating, whether due to ocean waves, winds, or human activities,” she explains. “Most of the time those vibrations are really small and are considered ‘noise’ by traditional seismologists. But in recent years scientists have shown that the continuous noise records in fact contain a wealth of information about the properties and structures of the Earth’s interior.”

    To extract useful information from the noise records, Mao and her team used a technique called seismic interferometry, which analyzes wave interference to calculate the seismic velocity of the medium the waves pass through. For their pilot application, Mao and her team applied this analysis to basins in the Metropolitan Los Angeles region, an area suffering from worsening drought and a growing population.

    By doing this, Mao and her team were able to see how the aquifers changed physically over time at a high resolution. Their seismic velocity measurements verified measurements taken by hydraulic heads over the last 20 years, and the images matched very well with satellite data. They could also see differences in how the storage areas changed between counties in the area that used different water pumping practices, which is important for developing water management protocol.

    Mao also calls using the seismometers a “buy-one get-one free” deal, since seismometers are already in use for earthquake and tectonic studies not just across California, but worldwide, and could help “avoid the expensive cost of drilling and maintaining dedicated groundwater monitoring wells,” she says.

    Mao emphasizes that this study is just the beginning of exploring possible applications of seismic noise interferometry in this way. It can be used to monitor other near-surface systems, such as geothermal or volcanic systems, and Mao is currently applying it to oil and gas fields. But in places like California currently experiencing megadroughts, and who rely on groundwater for a large portion of their water needs, this kind of information is key for sustainable water management.

    “It’s really important, especially now, to characterize these changes in groundwater storage so that we can promote data-informed policymaking to help them thrive under increasing water stress,” she says.

    This study was funded, in part, by the European Research Council, with additional support from the Thompson Fellowship at Stanford University. More

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    From bridges to DNA: civil engineering across disciplines

    How is DNA like a bridge? This question is not a riddle or logic game, it is a concern of Johannes Kalliauer’s doctoral thesis.

    As a student at TU Wien in Austria, Kalliauer was faced with a monumental task: combining approaches from civil engineering and theoretical physics to better understand the forces that act on DNA.

    Kalliauer, now a postdoc at the MIT Concrete Sustainability Hub, says he modeled DNA as though it were a beam, using molecular dynamics principles to understand its structural properties.

    “The mechanics of very small objects, like DNA helices, and large ones, like bridges, are quite similar. Each may be understood in terms of Newtonian mechanics. Forces and moments act on each system, subjecting each to deformations like twisting, stretching, and warping,” says Kalliauer.

    As a 2020 article from TU Wien noted, Kalliauer observed a counterintuitive behavior when examining DNA at an atomic level. Unlike a typical spring which becomes less coiled as it is stretched, DNA was observed to become more wound as its length was increased. 

    In situations like these where conventional logic appears to break down, Kalliauer relies on the intuition he has gained as an engineer.

    “To understand this strange behavior in DNA, I turned to a fundamental approach: I examined what was the same about DNA and macroscopic structures and what was different. Civil engineers use methods and calculations which have been developed over centuries and which are very similar to the ones I employed for my thesis,” Kalliauer explains. 

    As Kalliauer continues, “Structural engineering is an incredibly versatile discipline. If you understand it, you can understand atomistic objects like DNA strands and very large ones like galaxies. As a researcher, I rely on it to help me bring new viewpoints to fields like biology. Other civil engineers can and should do the same.”

    Kalliauer, who grew up in a small town in Austria, has spent his life applying unconventional approaches like this across disciplines. “I grew up in a math family. While none of us were engineers, my parents instilled an appreciation for the discipline in me and my two older sisters.”

    After middle school, Kalliauer attended a technical school for civil engineering, where he discovered a fascination for mechanics. He also worked on a construction site to gain practical experience and see engineering applied in a real-world context.

    Kalliauer studied out of interest intensely, working upwards of 100 hours per week to better understand coursework in university. “I asked teachers and professors many questions, often challenging their ideas. Above everything else, I needed to understand things for myself. Doing well on exams was a secondary concern.”

    In university, he studied topics ranging from car crash testing to concrete hinges to biology. As a new member of the CSHub, he is studying how floods may be modeled with the statistical physics-based model provided by lattice density functional theory.

    In doing this, he builds on the work of past and present CSHub researchers like Elli Vartziotis and Katerina Boukin. 

    “It’s important to me that this research has a real impact in the world. I hope my approach to engineering can help researchers and stakeholders understand how floods propagate in urban contexts, so that we may make cities more resilient,” he says. More