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    How diet affects tumors

    In recent years, there has been some evidence that dietary interventions can help to slow the growth of tumors. A new study from MIT, which analyzed two different diets in mice, reveals how those diets affect cancer cells, and offers an explanation for why restricting calories may slow tumor growth.

    The study examined the effects of a calorically restricted diet and a ketogenic diet in mice with pancreatic tumors. While both of these diets reduce the amount of sugar available to tumors, the researchers found that only the calorically restricted diet reduced the availability of fatty acids, and this was linked to a slowdown in tumor growth.

    The findings do not suggest that cancer patients should try to follow either of these diets, the researchers say. Instead, they believe the findings warrant further study to determine how dietary interventions might be combined with existing or emerging drugs to help patients with cancer.

    “There’s a lot of evidence that diet can affect how fast your cancer progresses, but this is not a cure,” says Matthew Vander Heiden, director of MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research and the senior author of the study. “While the findings are provocative, further study is needed, and individual patients should talk to their doctor about the right dietary interventions for their cancer.”

    MIT postdoc Evan Lien is the lead author of the paper, which appears today in Nature.

    Metabolic mechanism

    Vander Heiden, who is also a medical oncologist at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, says his patients often ask him about the potential benefits of various diets, but there is not enough scientific evidence available to offer any definitive advice. Many of the dietary questions that patients have focus on either a calorie-restricted diet, which reduces calorie consumption by 25 to 50 percent, or a ketogenic diet, which is low in carbohydrates and high in fat and protein.

    Previous studies have suggested that a calorically restricted diet might slow tumor growth in some contexts, and such a diet has been shown to extend lifespan in mice and many other animal species. A smaller number of studies exploring the effects of a ketogenic diet on cancer have produced inconclusive results.

    “A lot of the advice or cultural fads that are out there aren’t necessarily always based on very good science,” Lien says. “It seemed like there was an opportunity, especially with our understanding of cancer metabolism having evolved so much over the past 10 years or so, that we could take some of the biochemical principles that we’ve learned and apply those concepts to understanding this complex question.”

    Cancer cells consume a great deal of glucose, so some scientists had hypothesized that either the ketogenic diet or calorie restriction might slow tumor growth by reducing the amount of glucose available. However, the MIT team’s initial experiments in mice with pancreatic tumors showed that calorie restriction has a much greater effect on tumor growth than the ketogenic diet, so the researchers suspected that glucose levels were not playing a major role in the slowdown.

    To dig deeper into the mechanism, the researchers analyzed tumor growth and nutrient concentration in mice with pancreatic tumors, which were fed either a normal, ketogenic, or calorie-restricted diet. In both the ketogenic and calorie-restricted mice, glucose levels went down. In the calorie-restricted mice, lipid levels also went down, but in mice on the ketogenic diet, they went up.

    Lipid shortages impair tumor growth because cancer cells need lipids to construct their cell membranes. Normally, when lipids aren’t available in a tissue, cells can make their own. As part of this process, they need to maintain the right balance of saturated and unsaturated fatty acids, which requires an enzyme called stearoyl-CoA desaturase (SCD). This enzyme is responsible for converting saturated fatty acids into unsaturated fatty acids.

    Both calorie-restricted and ketogenic diets reduce SCD activity, but mice on the ketogenic diet had lipids available to them from their diet, so they didn’t need to use SCD. Mice on the calorie-restricted diet, however, couldn’t get fatty acids from their diet or produce their own. In these mice, tumor growth slowed significantly, compared to mice on the ketogenic diet.

    “Not only does caloric restriction starve tumors of lipids, it also impairs the process that allows them to adapt to it. That combination is really contributing to the inhibition of tumor growth,” Lien says.

    Dietary effects

    In addition to their mouse research, the researchers also looked at some human data. Working with Brian Wolpin, an oncologist at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and an author of the paper, the team obtained data from a large cohort study that allowed them to analyze the relationship between dietary patterns and survival times in pancreatic cancer patients. From that study, the researchers found that the type of fat consumed appears to influence how patients on a low-sugar diet fare after a pancreatic cancer diagnosis, although the data are not complete enough to draw any conclusions about the effect of diet, the researchers say.

    Although this study showed that calorie restriction has beneficial effects in mice, the researchers say they do not recommend that cancer patients follow a calorie-restricted diet, which is difficult to maintain and can have harmful side effects. However, they believe that cancer cells’ dependence on the availability of unsaturated fatty acids could be exploited to develop drugs that might help slow tumor growth.

    One possible therapeutic strategy could be inhibition of the SCD enzyme, which would cut off tumor cells’ ability to produce unsaturated fatty acids.

    “The purpose of these studies isn’t necessarily to recommend a diet, but it’s to really understand the underlying biology,” Lien says. “They provide some sense of the mechanisms of how these diets work, and that can lead to rational ideas on how we might mimic those situations for cancer therapy.”

    The researchers now plan to study how diets with a variety of fat sources — including plant or animal-based fats with defined differences in saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated fatty acid content — alter tumor fatty acid metabolism and the ratio of unsaturated to saturated fatty acids.

    The research was funded by the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the Lustgarten Foundation, the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute Hale Family Center for Pancreatic Cancer Research, Stand Up to Cancer, the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, the Noble Effort Fund, the Wexler Family Fund, Promises for Purple, the Bob Parsons Fund, the Emerald Foundation, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the MIT Center for Precision Cancer Medicine, and the Ludwig Center at MIT. More

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    How marsh grass protects shorelines

    Marsh plants, which are ubiquitous along the world’s shorelines, can play a major role in mitigating the damage to coastlines as sea levels rise and storm surges increase. Now, a new MIT study provides greater detail about how these protective benefits work under real-world conditions shaped by waves and currents.

    The study combined laboratory experiments using simulated plants in a large wave tank along with mathematical modeling. It appears in the journal Physical Review — Fluids, in a paper by former MIT visiting doctoral student Xiaoxia Zhang, now a postdoc at Dalian University of Technology, and professor of civil and environmental engineering Heidi Nepf.

    It’s already clear that coastal marsh plants provide significant protection from surges and devastating  storms. For example, it has been estimated that the damage caused by Hurricane Sandy was reduced by $625 million thanks to the damping of wave energy provided by extensive areas of marsh along the affected coasts. But the new MIT analysis incorporates details of plant morphology, such as the number and spacing of flexible leaves versus stiffer stems, and the complex interactions of currents and waves that may be coming from different directions.

    This level of detail could enable coastal restoration planners to determine the area of marsh needed to mitigate expected amounts of storm surge or sea-level rise, and to decide which types of plants to introduce to maximize protection.

    “When you go to a marsh, you often will see that the plants are arranged in zones,” says Nepf, who is the Donald and Martha Harleman Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering. “Along the edge, you tend to have plants that are more flexible, because they are using their flexibility to reduce the wave forces they feel. In the next zone, the plants are a little more rigid and have a bit more leaves.”

    As the zones progress, the plants become stiffer, leafier, and more effective at absorbing wave energy thanks to their greater leaf area. The new modeling done in this research, which incorporated work with simulated plants in the 24-meter-long wave tank at MIT’s Parsons Lab, can enable coastal planners to take these kinds of details into account when planning protection, mitigation, or restoration projects.

    “If you put the stiffest plants at the edge, they might not survive, because they’re feeling very high wave forces. By describing why Mother Nature organizes plants in this way, we can hopefully design a more sustainable restoration,” Nepf says.

    Once established, the marsh plants provide a positive feedback cycle that helps to not only stabilize but also build up these delicate coastal lands, Zhang says. “After a few years, the marsh grasses start to trap and hold the sediment, and the elevation gets higher and higher, which might keep up with sea level rise,” she says.

    The new MIT analysis incorporates details of plant morphology, such as the number and spacing of flexible leaves versus stiffer stems, and the complex interactions of currents and waves that may be coming from different directions.

    Awareness of the protective effects of marshland has been growing, Nepf says. For example, the Netherlands has been restoring lost marshland outside the dikes that surround much of the nation’s agricultural land, finding that the marsh can protect the dikes from erosion; the marsh and dikes work together much more effectively than the dikes alone at preventing flooding.

    But most such efforts so far have been largely empirical, trial-and-error plans, Nepf says. Now, they could take advantage of this modeling to know just how much marshland with what types of plants would be needed to provide the desired level of protection.

    It also provides a more quantitative way to estimate the value provided by marshes, she says. “It could allow you to more accurately say, ‘40 meters of marsh will reduce waves this much and therefore will reduce overtopping of your levee by this much.’ Someone could use that to say, ‘I’m going to save this much money over the next 10 years if I reduce flooding by maintaining this marsh.’ It might help generate some political motivation for restoration efforts.”

    Nepf herself is already trying to get some of these findings included in coastal planning processes. She serves on a practitioner panel led by Chris Esposito of the Water Institute of the Gulf, which serves the storm-battered Louisiana coastline. “We’d like to get this work into the coatal simulations that are used for large-scale restoration and coastal planning,” she says.

    “Understanding the wave damping process in real vegetation wetlands is of critical value, as it is needed in the assessment of the coastal defense value of these wetlands,” says Zhan Hu, an associate professor of marine sciences at Sun Yat-Sen University, who was not associated with this work. “The challenge, however, lies in the quantitative representation of the wave damping process, in which many factors are at play, such as plant flexibility, morphology, and coexisting currents.”

    The new study, Hu says, “neatly combines experimental findings and analytical modeling to reveal the impact of each factor in the wave damping process. … Overall, this work is a solid step forward toward a more accurate assessment of wave damping capacity of real coastal wetlands, which is needed for science-based design and management of nature-based coastal protection.”

    The work was partly supported by the National Science Foundation and the China Scholarship Council.  More

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    Rover images confirm Jezero crater is an ancient Martian lake

    The first scientific analysis of images taken by NASA’s Perseverance rover has now confirmed that Mars’ Jezero crater — which today is a dry, wind-eroded depression — was once a quiet lake, fed steadily by a small river some 3.7 billion years ago.

    The images also reveal evidence that the crater endured flash floods. This flooding was energetic enough to sweep up large boulders from tens of miles upstream and deposit them into the lakebed, where the massive rocks lie today.

    The new analysis, published today in the journal Science, is based on images of the outcropping rocks inside the crater on its western side. Satellites had previously shown that this outcrop, seen from above, resembled river deltas on Earth, where layers of sediment are deposited in the shape of a fan as the river feeds into a lake.

    Perseverance’s new images, taken from inside the crater, confirm that this outcrop was indeed a river delta. Based on the sedimentary layers in the outcrop, it appears that the river delta fed into a lake that was calm for much of its existence, until a dramatic shift in climate triggered episodic flooding at or toward the end of the lake’s history.

    “If you look at these images, you’re basically staring at this epic desert landscape. It’s the most forlorn place you could ever visit,” says Benjamin Weiss, professor of planetary sciences in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences and a member of the analysis team. “There’s not a drop of water anywhere, and yet, here we have evidence of a very different past. Something very profound happened in the planet’s history.”

    As the rover explores the crater, scientists hope to uncover more clues to its climatic evolution. Now that they have confirmed the crater was once a lake environment, they believe its sediments could hold traces of ancient aqueous life. In its mission going forward, Perseverance will look for locations to collect and preserve sediments. These samples will eventually be returned to Earth, where scientists can probe them for Martian biosignatures.

    “We now have the opportunity to look for fossils,” says team member Tanja Bosak, associate professor of geobiology at MIT. “It will take some time to get to the rocks that we really hope to sample for signs of life. So, it’s a marathon, with a lot of potential.”

    Tilted beds

    On Feb. 18, 2021, the Perseverance rover landed on the floor of Jezero crater, a little more than a mile away from its western fan-shaped outcrop. In the first three months, the vehicle remained stationary as NASA engineers performed remote checks of the rover’s many instruments.

    During this time, two of Perseverance’s cameras, Mastcam-Z and the SuperCam Remote Micro-Imager (RMI), captured images of their surroundings, including long-distance photos of the outcrop’s edge and a formation known as Kodiak butte, a smaller outcop that planetary geologists surmise may have once been connected to the main fan-shaped outcrop but has since partially eroded.

    Once the rover downlinked images to Earth, NASA’s Perseverance science team processed and combined the images, and were able to observe distinct beds of sediment along Kodiak butte in surprisingly high resolution. The researchers measured each layer’s thickness, slope, and lateral extent, finding that the sediment must have been deposited by flowing water into a lake, rather than by wind, sheet-like floods, or other geologic processes.

    The rover also captured similar tilted sediment beds along the main outcrop. These images, together with those of Kodiak, confirm that the fan-shaped formation was indeed an ancient delta and that this delta fed into an ancient Martian lake.

    “Without driving anywhere, the rover was able to solve one of the big unknowns, which was that this crater was once a lake,” Weiss says. “Until we actually landed there and confirmed it was a lake, it was always a question.”

    Boulder flow

    When the researchers took a closer look at images of the main outcrop, they noticed large boulders and cobbles embedded in the youngest, topmost layers of the delta. Some boulders measured as wide as 1 meter across, and were estimated to weigh up to several tons. These massive rocks, the team concluded, must have come from outside the crater, and was likely part of bedrock located on the crater rim or else 40 or more miles upstream.

    Judging from their current location and dimensions, the team says the boulders were carried downstream and into the lakebed by a flash-flood that flowed up to 9 meters per second and moved up to 3,000 cubic meters of water per second.

    “You need energetic flood conditions to carry rocks that big and heavy,” Weiss says. “It’s a special thing that may be indicative of a fundamental change in the local hydrology or perhaps the regional climate on Mars.”

    Because the huge rocks lie in the upper layers of the delta, they represent the most recently deposited material. The boulders sit atop layers of older, much finer sediment. This stratification, the researchers say, indicates that for much of its existence, the ancient lake was filled by a gently flowing river. Fine sediments — and possibly organic material — drifted down the river, and settled into a gradual, sloping delta.

    However, the crater later experienced sudden flash floods that deposited large boulders onto the delta. Once the lake dried up, and over billions of years wind eroded the landscape, leaving the crater we see today.

    The cause of this climate turnaround is unknown, although Weiss says the delta’s boulders may hold some answers.

    “The most surprising thing that’s come out of these images is the potential opportunity to catch the time when this crater transitioned from an Earth-like habitable environment, to this desolate landscape wasteland we see now,” he says. “These boulder beds may be records of this transition, and we haven’t seen this in other places on Mars.”

    This research was supported, in part, by NASA. More

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    New “risk triage” platform pinpoints compounding threats to US infrastructure

    Over a 36-hour period in August, Hurricane Henri delivered record rainfall in New York City, where an aging storm-sewer system was not built to handle the deluge, resulting in street flooding. Meanwhile, an ongoing drought in California continued to overburden aquifers and extend statewide water restrictions. As climate change amplifies the frequency and intensity of extreme events in the United States and around the world, and the populations and economies they threaten grow and change, there is a critical need to make infrastructure more resilient. But how can this be done in a timely, cost-effective way?

    An emerging discipline called multi-sector dynamics (MSD) offers a promising solution. MSD homes in on compounding risks and potential tipping points across interconnected natural and human systems. Tipping points occur when these systems can no longer sustain multiple, co-evolving stresses, such as extreme events, population growth, land degradation, drinkable water shortages, air pollution, aging infrastructure, and increased human demands. MSD researchers use observations and computer models to identify key precursory indicators of such tipping points, providing decision-makers with critical information that can be applied to mitigate risks and boost resilience in infrastructure and managed resources.

    At MIT, the Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change has since 2018 been developing MSD expertise and modeling tools and using them to explore compounding risks and potential tipping points in selected regions of the United States. In a two-hour webinar on Sept. 15, MIT Joint Program researchers presented an overview of the program’s MSD research tool set and its applications.  

    MSD and the risk triage platform

    “Multi-sector dynamics explores interactions and interdependencies among human and natural systems, and how these systems may adapt, interact, and co-evolve in response to short-term shocks and long-term influences and stresses,” says MIT Joint Program Deputy Director C. Adam Schlosser, noting that such analysis can reveal and quantify potential risks that would likely evade detection in siloed investigations. “These systems can experience cascading effects or failures after crossing tipping points. The real question is not just where these tipping points are in each system, but how they manifest and interact across all systems.”

    To address that question, the program’s MSD researchers have developed the MIT Socio-Environmental Triage (MST) platform, now publicly available for the first time. Focused on the continental United States, the first version of the platform analyzes present-day risks related to water, land, climate, the economy, energy, demographics, health, and infrastructure, and where these compound to create risk hot spots. It’s essentially a screening-level visualization tool that allows users to examine risks, identify hot spots when combining risks, and make decisions about how to deploy more in-depth analysis to solve complex problems at regional and local levels. For example, MST can identify hot spots for combined flood and poverty risks in the lower Mississippi River basin, and thereby alert decision-makers as to where more concentrated flood-control resources are needed.

    Successive versions of the platform will incorporate projections based on the MIT Joint Program’s Integrated Global System Modeling (IGSM) framework of how different systems and stressors may co-evolve into the future and thereby change the risk landscape. This enhanced capability could help uncover cost-effective pathways for mitigating and adapting to a wide range of environmental and economic risks.  

    MSD applications

    Five webinar presentations explored how MIT Joint Program researchers are applying the program’s risk triage platform and other MSD modeling tools to identify potential tipping points and risks in five key domains: water quality, land use, economics and energy, health, and infrastructure. 

    Joint Program Principal Research Scientist Xiang Gao described her efforts to apply a high-resolution U.S. water-quality model to calculate a location-specific, water-quality index over more than 2,000 river basins in the country. By accounting for interactions among climate, agriculture, and socioeconomic systems, various water-quality measures can be obtained ranging from nitrate and phosphate levels to phytoplankton concentrations. This modeling approach advances a unique capability to identify potential water-quality risk hot spots for freshwater resources.

    Joint Program Research Scientist Angelo Gurgel discussed his MSD-based analysis of how climate change, population growth, changing diets, crop-yield improvements and other forces that drive land-use change at the global level may ultimately impact how land is used in the United States. Drawing upon national observational data and the IGSM framework, the analysis shows that while current U.S. land-use trends are projected to persist or intensify between now and 2050, there is no evidence of any concerning tipping points arising throughout this period.  

    MIT Joint Program Research Scientist Jennifer Morris presented several examples of how the risk triage platform can be used to combine existing U.S. datasets and the IGSM framework to assess energy and economic risks at the regional level. For example, by aggregating separate data streams on fossil-fuel employment and poverty, one can target selected counties for clean energy job training programs as the nation moves toward a low-carbon future. 

    “Our modeling and risk triage frameworks can provide pictures of current and projected future economic and energy landscapes,” says Morris. “They can also highlight interactions among different human, built, and natural systems, including compounding risks that occur in the same location.”  

    MIT Joint Program research affiliate Sebastian Eastham, a research scientist at the MIT Laboratory for Aviation and the Environment, described an MSD approach to the study of air pollution and public health. Linking the IGSM with an atmospheric chemistry model, Eastham ultimately aims to better understand where the greatest health risks are in the United States and how they may compound throughout this century under different policy scenarios. Using the risk triage tool to combine current risk metrics for air quality and poverty in a selected county based on current population and air-quality data, he showed how one can rapidly identify cardiovascular and other air-pollution-induced disease risk hot spots.

    Finally, MIT Joint Program research affiliate Alyssa McCluskey, a lecturer at the University of Colorado at Boulder, showed how the risk triage tool can be used to pinpoint potential risks to roadways, waterways, and power distribution lines from flooding, extreme temperatures, population growth, and other stressors. In addition, McCluskey described how transportation and energy infrastructure development and expansion can threaten critical wildlife habitats.

    Enabling comprehensive, location-specific analyses of risks and hot spots within and among multiple domains, the Joint Program’s MSD modeling tools can be used to inform policymaking and investment from the municipal to the global level.

    “MSD takes on the challenge of linking human, natural, and infrastructure systems in order to inform risk analysis and decision-making,” says Schlosser. “Through our risk triage platform and other MSD models, we plan to assess important interactions and tipping points, and to provide foresight that supports action toward a sustainable, resilient, and prosperous world.”

    This research is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science as an ongoing project. More

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    For campus “porosity hunters,” climate resilience is the goal

    At MIT, it’s not uncommon to see groups navigating campus with smartphones and measuring devices in hand, using the Institute as a test bed for research. During one week this summer more than a dozen students, researchers, and faculty, plus an altimeter, could be seen doing just that as they traveled across MIT to measure the points of entry into campus buildings — including windows, doors, and vents — known as a building’s porosity.

    Why measure campus building porosity?

    The group was part of the MIT Porosity Hunt, a citizen-science effort that is using the MIT campus as a place to test emerging methodologies, instruments, and data collection processes to better understand the potential impact of a changing climate — and specifically storm scenarios resulting from it — on infrastructure. The hunt is a collaborative effort between the Urban Risk Lab, led by director and associate professor of architecture and urbanism Miho Mazereeuw, and the Office of Sustainability (MITOS), aimed at supporting an MIT that is resilient to the impacts of climate change, including flooding and extreme heat events. Working over three days, members of the hunt catalogued openings in dozens of buildings across campus to better support flood mapping and resiliency planning at MIT.

    For Mazereeuw, the data collection project lies at the nexus of her work with the Urban Risk Lab and as a member of MIT’s Climate Resiliency Committee. While the lab’s mission is to “develop methods, prototypes, and technologies to embed risk reduction and preparedness into the design of cities and regions to increase resilience,” the Climate Resiliency Committee — made up of faculty, staff, and researchers — is focused on assessing, planning, and operationalizing a climate-resilient MIT. The work of both the lab and the committee is embedded in the recently released MIT Climate Resiliency Dashboard, a visualization tool that allows users to understand potential flooding impacts of a number of storm scenarios and drive decision-making.

    While the debut of the tool signaled a big advancement in resiliency planning at MIT, some, including Mazereeuw, saw an opportunity for enhancement. In working with Ken Strzepek, a MITOS Faculty Fellow and research scientist at the MIT Center for Global Change Science who was also an integral part of this work, Mazereeuw says she was surprised to learn that even the most sophisticated flood modeling treats buildings as solid blocks. With all buildings being treated the same, despite varying porosity, the dashboard is limited in some flood scenario analysis. To address this, Mazereeuw and others got to work to fill in that additional layer of data, with the citizen science efforts a key factor of that work. “Understanding the porosity of the building is important to understanding how much water actually goes in the building in these scenarios,” she explains.

    Though surveyors are often used to collect and map this type of information, Mazereeuw wanted to leverage the MIT community in order to collect data quickly while engaging students, faculty, and researchers as resiliency stewards for the campus. “It’s important for projects like this to encourage awareness,” she explains. “Generally, when something fails, we notice it, but otherwise we don’t. With climate change bringing on more uncertainty in the scale and intensity of events, we need everyone to be more aware and help us understand things like vulnerabilities.”

    To do this, MITOS and the Urban Risk Lab reached out to more than a dozen students, who were joined by faculty, staff, and researchers, to map porosity of 31 campus buildings connected by basements. The buildings were chosen based on this connectivity, understanding that water that reaches one basement could potentially flow to another.

    Urban Risk Lab research scientists Aditya Barve and Mayank Ojha aided the group’s efforts by creating a mapping app and chatbot to support consistency in reporting and ease of use. Each team member used the app to find buildings where porosity points needed to be mapped. As teams arrived at the building exteriors, they entered their location in the app, which then triggered the Facebook and LINE-powered chatbot on their phone. There, students were guided through measuring the opening, adjusting for elevation to correlate to the City of Cambridge base datum, and, based on observable features, noting the materials and quality of the opening on a one-through-three scale. Over just three days, the team, which included Mazereeuw herself, mapped 1,030 porosity points that will aid in resiliency planning and preparation on campus in a number of ways.

    “The goal is to understand various heights for flood waters around porous spots on campus,” says Mazereeuw. “But the impact can be different depending on the space. We hope this data can inform safety as well as understanding potential damage to research or disruption to campus operations from future storms.”

    The porosity data collection is complete for this round — future hunts will likely be conducted to confirm and converge data — but one team member’s work continues at the basement level of MIT. Katarina Boukin, a PhD student in civil and environmental engineering and PhD student fellow with MITOS, has been focused on methods of collecting data beneath buildings at MIT to understand how they would be impacted if flood water were to enter. “We have a number of connected basements on campus, and if one of them floods, potentially all of them do,” explains Boukin. “By looking at absolute elevation and porosity, we’re connecting the outside to the inside and tracking how much and where water may flow.” With the added data from the Porosity Hunt, a complete picture of vulnerabilities and resiliency opportunities can be shared.

    Synthesizing much of this data is where Eva Then ’21 comes in. Then was among the students who worked to capture data points over the three days and is now working in ArcGIS — an online mapping software that also powers the Climate Resiliency Dashboard — to process and visualize the data collected. Once completed, the data will be incorporated into the campus flood model to increase the accuracy of projections on the Climate Resiliency Dashboard. “Over the next decades, the model will serve as an adaptive planning tool to make campus safe and resilient amid growing climate risks,” Then says.

    For Mazereeuw, the Porosity Hunt and data collected additionally serve as a study in scalability, providing valuable insight on how similar research efforts inspired by the MIT test bed approach could be undertaken and inform policy beyond MIT. She also hopes it will inspire students to launch their own hunts in the future, becoming resiliency stewards for their campus and dorms. “Going through measuring and documenting turns on and shows a new set of goggles — you see campus and buildings in a slightly different way,” she says, “Having people look carefully and document change is a powerful tool in climate and resiliency planning.” 

    Mazereeuw also notes that recent devastating flooding events across the country, including those resulting from Hurricane Ida, have put a special focus on this work. “The loss of life that occurred in that storm, including those who died as waters flooded their basement homes  underscores the urgency of this type of research, planning, and readiness.” More

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    The language of change

    Ryan Conti came to MIT hoping to find a way to do good things in the world. Now a junior, his path is pointing toward a career in climate science, and he is preparing by majoring in both math and computer science and by minoring in philosophy.

    Language for catalyzing change

    Philosophy matters to Conti not only because he is interested in ethics — questions of right and wrong — but because he believes the philosophy of language can illuminate how humans communicate, including factors that contribute to miscommunication. “I care a lot about climate change, so I want to do scientific work on it, but I also want to help work on policy — which means conveying arguments well and convincing people so that change can occur,” he says.Conti says a key reason he came to MIT was because the Institute has such a strong School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences (MIT SHASS). “One of the big factors in my choosing MIT is that the humanities departments here are really, really good,” says Conti, who was named a 2021 Burchard Scholar in honor of his excellence in the Institute’s humanistic fields. “I was considering literature, writing, philosophy, linguistics, all of that.”Revitalizing endangered indigenous languages

    Within MIT SHASS, Conti has focused academically on the philosophy of language, and he is also personally pursuing another linguistic passion — the preservation and revitalization of endangered indigenous languages. Raised in Plano, Texas, Conti is a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation, which today has fewer than 50 first-language speakers left.“I’ve been studying the language on my own. It’s something I really care about a lot, the entire endeavor of language revitalization,” says Conti, who credits his maternal grandmother with instilling his appreciation for his heritage. “She would always tell me that I should be proud of it,” he says. “As I got older and understood the history of things, the precarious nature of our language, I got more invested.” Conti says working to revitalize the Chickasaw language “could be one of the most important things I do with my life.”Already, MIT has given him an opportunity — through the MIT Solve initiative — to participate in a website project for speakers of Makah, an endangered indigenous language of the Pacific Northwest. “The thrust at a high level is trying to use AI [artificial intelligence] to develop speech-to-text software for languages in the Wakashan language family,” he says. The project taught him a lot about natural language processing and automatic speech recognition, he adds, although his website design was not chosen for implementation.

    Glacier dynamics, algorithms — and Quizbowl!

    MIT has also given Conti some experience on the front lines of climate change. Through the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, he has been working in MIT’s Glacier Dynamics and Remote Sensing Group, developing machine learning algorithms to improve iceberg detection using satellite imagery. After graduation, Conti plans to pursue a PhD in climate science, perhaps continuing to work in glaciology.He also hopes to participate in a Chickasaw program that pairs students with native speakers to become fluent. He says he sees some natural overlap between his two passions. “Issues of indigenous sovereignty and language preservation are inherently linked with climate change, because the effects of climate change fall unequally on poor communities, which are oftentimes indigenous communities,” he says.For the moment, however, those plans still lie at least two years in the future. In the meantime, Conti is having fun serving as vice president of the MIT Quizbowl Team, an academic quiz team that competes across the region and often participate in national tournaments. What are Conti’s competition specialties? Literature and philosophy. 

    Story prepared by MIT SHASS CommunicationsEditor, Designer: Emily Hiestand, Communications DirectorSenior Writer: Kathryn O’Neill, Associate News Manager More

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    Zeroing in on the origins of Earth’s “single most important evolutionary innovation”

    Some time in Earth’s early history, the planet took a turn toward habitability when a group of enterprising microbes known as cyanobacteria evolved oxygenic photosynthesis — the ability to turn light and water into energy, releasing oxygen in the process.

    This evolutionary moment made it possible for oxygen to eventually accumulate in the atmosphere and oceans, setting off a domino effect of diversification and shaping the uniquely habitable planet we know today.  

    Now, MIT scientists have a precise estimate for when cyanobacteria, and oxygenic photosynthesis, first originated. Their results appear today in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

    They developed a new gene-analyzing technique that shows that all the species of cyanobacteria living today can be traced back to a common ancestor that evolved around 2.9 billion years ago. They also found that the ancestors of cyanobacteria branched off from other bacteria around 3.4 billion years ago, with oxygenic photosynthesis likely evolving during the intervening half-billion years, during the Archean Eon.

    Interestingly, this estimate places the appearance of oxygenic photosynthesis at least 400 million years before the Great Oxidation Event, a period in which the Earth’s atmosphere and oceans first experienced a rise in oxygen. This suggests that cyanobacteria may have evolved the ability to produce oxygen early on, but that it took a while for this oxygen to really take hold in the environment.

    “In evolution, things always start small,” says lead author Greg Fournier, associate professor of geobiology in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences. “Even though there’s evidence for early oxygenic photosynthesis — which is the single most important and really amazing evolutionary innovation on Earth — it still took hundreds of millions of years for it to take off.”

    Fournier’s MIT co-authors include Kelsey Moore, Luiz Thiberio Rangel, Jack Payette, Lily Momper, and Tanja Bosak.

    Slow fuse, or wildfire?

    Estimates for the origin of oxygenic photosynthesis vary widely, along with the methods to trace its evolution.

    For instance, scientists can use geochemical tools to look for traces of oxidized elements in ancient rocks. These methods have found hints that oxygen was present as early as 3.5 billion years ago — a sign that oxygenic photosynthesis may have been the source, although other sources are also possible.

    Researchers have also used molecular clock dating, which uses the genetic sequences of microbes today to trace back changes in genes through evolutionary history. Based on these sequences, researchers then use models to estimate the rate at which genetic changes occur, to trace when groups of organisms first evolved. But molecular clock dating is limited by the quality of ancient fossils, and the chosen rate model, which can produce different age estimates, depending on the rate that is assumed.

    Fournier says different age estimates can imply conflicting evolutionary narratives. For instance, some analyses suggest oxygenic photosynthesis evolved very early on and progressed “like a slow fuse,” while others indicate it appeared much later and then “took off like wildfire” to trigger the Great Oxidation Event and the accumulation of oxygen in the biosphere.

    “In order for us to understand the history of habitability on Earth, it’s important for us to distinguish between these hypotheses,” he says.

    Horizontal genes

    To precisely date the origin of cyanobacteria and oxygenic photosynthesis, Fournier and his colleagues paired molecular clock dating with horizontal gene transfer — an independent method that doesn’t rely entirely on fossils or rate assumptions.

    Normally, an organism inherits a gene “vertically,” when it is passed down from the organism’s parent. In rare instances, a gene can also jump from one species to another, distantly related species. For instance, one cell may eat another, and in the process incorporate some new genes into its genome.

    When such a horizontal gene transfer history is found, it’s clear that the group of organisms that acquired the gene is evolutionarily younger than the group from which the gene originated. Fournier reasoned that such instances could be used to determine the relative ages between certain bacterial groups. The ages for these groups could then be compared with the ages that various molecular clock models predict. The model that comes closest would likely be the most accurate, and could then be used to precisely estimate the age of other bacterial species — specifically, cyanobacteria.

    Following this reasoning, the team looked for instances of horizontal gene transfer across the genomes of thousands of bacterial species, including cyanobacteria. They also used new cultures of modern cyanobacteria taken by Bosak and Moore, to more precisely use fossil cyanobacteria as calibrations. In the end, they identified 34 clear instances of horizontal gene transfer. They then found that one out of six molecular clock models consistently matched the relative ages identified in the team’s horizontal gene transfer analysis.

    Fournier ran this model to estimate the age of the “crown” group of cyanobacteria, which encompasses all the species living today and known to exhibit oxygenic photosynthesis. They found that, during the Archean eon, the crown group originated around 2.9 billion years ago, while cyanobacteria as a whole branched off from other bacteria around 3.4 billion years ago. This strongly suggests that oxygenic photosynthesis was already happening 500 million years before the Great Oxidation Event (GOE), and that cyanobacteria were producing oxygen for quite a long time before it accumulated in the atmosphere.

    The analysis also revealed that, shortly before the GOE, around 2.4 billion years ago, cyanobacteria experienced a burst of diversification. This implies that a rapid expansion of cyanobacteria may have tipped the Earth into the GOE and launched oxygen into the atmosphere.

    Fournier plans to apply horizontal gene transfer beyond cyanobacteria to pin down the origins of other elusive species.

    “This work shows that molecular clocks incorporating horizontal gene transfers (HGTs) promise to reliably provide the ages of groups across the entire tree of life, even for ancient microbes that have left no fossil record … something that was previously impossible,” Fournier says. 

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

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    Taylor Perron receives 2021 MacArthur Fellowship

    Taylor Perron, professor of geology and associate department head for education in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences, has been named a recipient of a 2021 MacArthur Fellowship.

    Often referred to as “genius grants,” the fellowships are awarded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to talented individuals in a variety of fields. Each MacArthur fellow receives a $625,000 stipend, which they are free to use as they see fit. Recipients are notified by the foundation of their selection shortly before the fellowships are publicly announced.

    “After I had absorbed what they were saying, the first thing I thought was, I couldn’t wait to tell my wife, Lisa,” Perron says of receiving the call. “We’ve been a team through all of this and have had a pretty incredible journey, and I was just eager to share that with her.”

    Perron is a geomorphologist who seeks to understand the mechanisms that shape landscapes on Earth and other planets. His work combines mathematical modeling and computer simulations of landscape evolution; analysis of remote-sensing and spacecraft data; and field studies in regions such as the Appalachian Mountains, Hawaii, and the Amazon rainforest to trace how landscapes evolved over time and how they may change in the future.

    “If we can understand how climate and life and geological processes have interacted over a long time to create the landscapes we see now, we can use that information to anticipate where the landscape is headed in the future,” Perron says.

    His group has developed models that describe how river systems generate intricate branching patterns as a result of competing erosional processes, and how climate influences erosion on continents, islands, and reefs.

    Perron has also applied his methods beyond Earth, to retrace the evolution of the surfaces of Mars and Saturn’s moon Titan. His group has used spacecraft images and data to show how features on Titan, which appear to be active river networks, were likely carved out by raining liquid methane. On Mars, his analyses have supported the idea that the Red Planet once harbored an ocean and that the former shoreline of this Martian ocean is now warped as a result of a shift in the planet’s spin axis.

    He is continuing to map out the details of Mars and Titan’s landscape histories, which he hopes will provide clues to their ancient climates and habitability.

    “I think answers to some of the big questions about the solar system are written in planetary landscapes,” Perron says. “For example, why did Mars start off with lakes and rivers, but end up as a frozen desert? And if a world like Titan has weather like ours, but with a methane cycle instead of a water cycle, could an environment like that have supported life? One thing we try to do is figure out how to read the landscape to find the answers to those questions.”

    Perron has expanded his group’s focus to examine how changing landscapes affect biodiversity, for instance in Appalachia and in the Amazon — both freshwater systems that host some of the most diverse populations of life on the planet.

    “If we can figure out how changes in the physical landscape may have generated regions of really high biodiversity, that should help us learn how to conserve it,” Perron says.

    Recently, his group has also begun to investigate the influence of landscape evolution on human history. Perron is collaborating with archaeologists on projects to study the effect of physical landscapes on human migration in the Americas, and how the response of rivers to ice ages may have helped humans develop complex farming societies in the Amazon.

    Looking ahead, he plans to apply the MacArthur grant toward these projects and other “intellectual risks” — ideas that have potential for failure but could be highly rewarding if they succeed. The fellowship will also provide resources for his group to continue collaborating across disciplines and continents.

    “I’ve learned a lot from reaching out to people in other fields — everything from granular mechanics to fish biology,” Perron says. “That has broadened my scientific horizons and helped us do innovative work. Having the fellowship will provide more flexibility to allow us to continue connecting with people from other fields and other parts of the world.”

    Perron holds a BA in earth and planetary sciences and archaeology from Harvard University and a PhD in earth and planetary science from the University of California at Berkeley. He joined MIT as a faculty member in 2009. More