New Study Sheds Light on Origins of Life on Earth

New Brunswick, N.J. (Jan. 14, 2022) – Addressing one of the most profoundly unanswered questions in biology, a Rutgers-led team has discovered the structures of proteins that may be responsible for the origins of life in the primordial soup of ancient Earth.

The study appears in the journal Science Advances.

The researchers explored how primitive life may have originated on our planet from simple, non-living materials. They asked what properties define life as we know it and concluded that anything alive would have needed to collect and use energy, from sources such as the Sun or hydrothermal vents.

In molecular terms, this would mean that the ability to shuffle electrons was paramount to life. Since the best elements for electron transfer are metals (think standard electrical wires) and most biological activities are carried out by proteins, the researchers decided to explore the combination of the two — that is, proteins that bind metals.

They compared all existing protein structures that bind metals to establish any common features, based on the premise that these shared features were present in ancestral proteins and were diversified and passed down to create the range of proteins we see today.

Evolution of protein structures entails understanding how new folds arose from previously existing ones, so the researchers designed a computational method that found the vast majority of currently existing metal-binding proteins are somewhat similar regardless of the type of metal they bind to, the organism they come from or the functionality assigned to the protein as a whole.

“We saw that the metal-binding cores of existing proteins are indeed similar even though the proteins themselves may not be,” said the study’s lead author Yana Bromberg, a professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Microbiology at Rutgers University-New Brunswick. “We also saw that these metal-binding cores are often made up of repeated substructures, kind of like LEGO blocks. Curiously, these blocks were also found in other regions of the proteins, not just metal-binding cores, and in many other proteins that were not considered in our study. Our observation suggests that rearrangements of these little building blocks may have had a single or a small number of common ancestors and given rise to the whole range of proteins and their functions that are currently available — that is, to life as we know it.”

“We have very little information about how life arose on this planet, and our work contributes a previously unavailable explanation,” said Bromberg, whose research focuses on deciphering the DNA blueprints of life’s molecular machinery. “This explanation could also potentially contribute to our search for life on other planets and planetary bodies. Our finding of the specific structural building blocks is also possibly relevant for synthetic biology efforts, where scientists aim to construct specifically active proteins anew.”

The study, funded by NASA, also included researchers from the University of Buenos Aires.

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Are You Addicted To Technology?

Newswise — During the COVID-19 shutdown, many people increasingly turned to technology for entertainment and information, a trend that raises concerns about an increase in technology addiction.

According to the Pew Research Center, about 30 percent of Americans are almost constantly online, and health officials are concerned about the amount of time children and adults spend with technology. China recently banned children from playing online games for more than three hours a week, internet addiction centers have been opening in the United States and Facebook has come under fire for teenagers’ obsessive use of its Instagram app.

“There is functional, healthy engagement with technology – ubiquitous and necessary in our everyday lives – and addictive use, and it can be difficult to know when that line has been crossed,” says Petros Levounis, chair of the Department of Psychiatry, associate dean at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School and author of Technological Addictions. “However, while obsessive use of technology may signal an addiction, it could otherwise be a sign of another mental health disorder.”

What does it mean to be addicted to technology?
While the majority of people who use technology will not have any problems – indeed, there are professional and recreational benefits from using electronics – a small percentage could develop an addiction and suffer consequences similar to that from substance abuse. In fact, studies have shown that as internet addiction worsens, so does the probability of developing a substance use disorder.

Using technology can become an obsession. People start engaging activities like online gaming, internet auctions, surfing the Net, social media, texting or cybersex and get caught up in the excitement. Soon, the focus shifts from generating feelings of pleasure and reward to being an activity they do to avoid feeling anxious, irritable or miserable.

How has the COVID-19 shutdown contributed to technology addiction?
We have noticed emerging addictions. For example, during the COVID-19 pandemic, cybersex has increased, with online dating apps, text chats and online pornography. Internet gaming, too, has exploded. One of the most concerning aspects with online gaming is that companies are now using psychology labs to maximize the effectiveness of their products in a way that is highly reminiscent of how the tobacco companies employed chemists to maximize their products’ addictiveness.

How do people know they’re addicted?
The two major red flags are: continued use of technology despite the knowledge of adverse consequences – people say “I know it’s bad for me, but I have to keep doing it” – and lying to people who are important to you about the frequency of the activity.

If you suspect you or someone you love is addicted to technology, what can you do?
Do not try to get the person into a rehab to be “cured.” Find a psychiatrist, preferably one who specializes in addiction, who can evaluate the person for a variety of disorders. The person might have depression, anxiety or a more serious psychiatric disorder like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, which is masquerading as a technological addiction.

How can parents help their children to use technology wisely?
Parents need to be good role models and be consistent in setting rules. For example, it is not okay for parents to declare that dinner time is a “cell phone free” time and then proceed to check emails during meals. If parents take technology out of their children’s bedrooms to promote good sleep hygiene, they should abide by these rules as well.

Catastrophic Sea-Level Rise from Antarctic Melting is Possible with Severe Global Warming

Newswise — The Antarctic ice sheet is much less likely to become unstable and cause dramatic sea-level rise in upcoming centuries if the world follows policies that keep global warming below a key 2015 Paris climate agreement target, according to a Rutgers coauthored study.

But if global warming exceeds the target – 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) – the risk of ice shelves around the ice sheet’s perimeter melting would increase significantly, and their collapse would trigger rapid Antarctic melting. That would result in at least 0.07 inches of global average sea-level rise a year in 2060 and beyond, according to the study in the journal Nature.

That’s faster than the average rate of sea-level rise over the past 120 years and, in vulnerable coastal places like downtown Annapolis, Maryland, has led to a dramatic increase in days of extreme flooding.

Global warming of 3 degrees Celsius (5.4 degrees Fahrenheit) could lead to catastrophic sea-level rise from Antarctic melting – an increase of at least 0.2 inches per year globally after 2060, on average.

“Ice-sheet collapse is irreversible over thousands of years, and if the Antarctic ice sheet becomes unstable it could continue to retreat for centuries,” said coauthor Daniel M. Gilford, a post-doctoral associate in the Rutgers Earth System Science & Policy Lab led by coauthor Robert E. Kopp, a professor in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences within the School of Arts and Sciences at Rutgers University–New Brunswick. “That’s regardless of whether emissions mitigation strategies such as removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere are employed.”

The Paris Agreement, achieved at a United Nations climate change conference, seeks to limit the negative impacts of global warming. Its goal is to keep the increase in global average temperature well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, along with pursuing efforts to limit the increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit). The signatories committed to eliminating global net carbon dioxide emissions in the second half of the 21st century.

Climate change from human activities is causing sea levels to rise, and projecting how Antarctica will contribute to this rise in a warmer climate is a difficult but critical challenge. How ice sheets might respond to warming is not well understood, and we don’t know what the ultimate global policy response to climate change will be. Greenland is losing ice at a faster rate than Antarctica, but Antarctica contains nearly eight times more ice above the ocean level, equivalent to 190 feet of global average sea-level rise, the study notes.

The study explored how Antarctica might change over the next century and beyond, depending on whether the temperature targets in the Paris Agreement are met or exceeded. To better understand how the ice sheet might respond, scientists trained a state-of-the-art ice-sheet model with modern satellite observations, paleoclimate data and a machine learning technique. They used the model to explore the likelihood of rapid ice-sheet retreat and the western Antarctic ice-sheet’s collapse under different global greenhouse gas emissions policies.

Current international policies are likely to lead to about 3 degrees Celsius of warming, which could thin Antarctica’s protective ice shelves and trigger rapid ice-sheet retreat between 2050 and 2100. Under this scenario, geoengineering strategies such as removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and sequestering (or storing) it would fail to prevent the worst of Antarctica’s contributions to global sea-level rise.

“These results demonstrate the possibility that unstoppable, catastrophic sea level rise from Antarctica will be triggered if Paris Agreement temperature targets are exceeded,” the study says. Gilford said “it’s critical to be proactive in mitigating climate change now through active international participation in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and by continuing to ratchet down proposed policies to meet the ambitious Paris Agreement targets.”

Rutgers coauthors include Erica Ashe, a post-doctoral scientist in the Rutgers Earth System Science & Policy Lab. Scientists at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Pennsylvania State University, University of California Irvine, University of Bristol, McGill University, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and University of Wisconsin-Madison contributed to the study.

The Impact of the U.S. Re-engaging with the World Health Organization

Newswise — The United States will begin participating in an international collaboration to distribute COVID-19 vaccines more equitably around the world after President Joe Biden reversed the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the World Health Organization on his first day in office.

Richard Marlink, the director of Rutgers Global Health Institute, discusses the impact COVAX, the global collaboration to accelerate the development, production, and equitable access to COVID-19 tests, treatments, and vaccines, will have on ending the COVID-19 pandemic and strengthening global health.

What is the significance of the U.S. move to reverse its withdrawal from the World Health Organization?

Part of it is symbolic. It was one of the very first acts of Biden’s presidency, and that sends an important message that the U.S. is prioritizing global health and a multilateral approach.

But in practical terms, the U.S. contributes significant funding and leadership resources to the World Health Organization. Historically, the U.S. has been the WHO’s largest donor. We are in the worst pandemic the world has seen in 100 years, and we will need all the world’s strongest resources to pull ourselves out of it.

One very concrete example is that the U.S. has finally agreed to participate in COVAX, which is co-led by the WHO. This commitment by the U.S. will strengthen efforts to distribute vaccines in countries that otherwise have no or very limited access.

COVID-19 has killed more people in the U.S. than in any other country, and most U.S. citizens are not yet vaccinated. Why is it a good thing to divert attention and resources to other countries?

There are two very good reasons to do this: one altruistic and the other selfish. First of all, it’s the right thing to do. All lives are valuable; someone who was fortunate enough to be born in a wealthy country should not have better access to health and quality health care than one who was not.

Second, the lack of a global vaccine strategy actually lengthens the pandemic. It is not possible to eradicate a virus this infectious in just one country. SARS-CoV-2 and its variants have demonstrated that they are fast, efficient travelers. As long as this virus continues infecting people, it will continue mutating, creating the more infectious variants. That puts all of us at risk. We won’t be protected until all countries are protected.

Given the criticisms the World Health Organization has faced for its response to the pandemic, is staying involved ultimately going to benefit the U.S.?

U.S. participation makes the World Health Organization stronger and gives us a seat at the table in creating important solutions, now and for the future. What improvements can we make to our pandemic alert system? How do we prepare for the next pandemic? How do we build resilience?

With the rate of global travel and instant worldwide communication we have today, unilateralism is not only ill-advised; it’s impossible. We’re all breathing the same air, so to speak. And infectious diseases are just one example of how global health issues affect us all.

What other issues are most in need of worldwide solutions?

Well, first, the impact of this pandemic will go far beyond the more than the 100 million people infected. By the time it’s over, how many businesses will have closed? How many more people will be food insecure or suffering mental health impacts? How many children will have suffered education losses because virtual education wasn’t a viable option for them, and how many will have dropped out? These are far-reaching problems with long-term effects on health in every country.

Second, there are the issues that existed long before the pandemic, and have even grown worse during the pandemic. Disparities in access to health care, or to the conditions necessary for good health, are limiting entire communities — and many countries — from realizing their potential. These disparities have economic and social costs, not to mention the fact that it is heartbreaking to know that there are places in the world where people are dying of completely curable and preventable conditions.

The U.S. can and should be a leader in solving these problems. The best way to do that is to work with the primary organization that’s set up to address human health across all borders, worldwide. Most health problems know no borders. We are all in this together.