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UC San Diego engineering professor solves deep earthquake mystery




A University of California San Diego engineering professor has solved one of the biggest mysteries in geophysics: What causes deep-focus earthquakes?

These mysterious earthquakes originate between 400 and 700 kilometers below the surface of the Earth and have been recorded with magnitudes up to 8.3 on the Richter scale.

Xanthippi Markenscoff, a distinguished professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at the UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering, is the person who solved this mystery. Her paper “Volume collapse instabilities in deep earthquakes: a shear source nucleated and driven by pressure” appears in the Journal of the Mechanics and Physics of Solids.

The term deep-focus earthquake refers to the fact that this type of earthquake originates deep within the Earth’s mantle where pressure forces are very high. Since deep-focus earthquakes were first identified in 1929, researchers had been trying to understand what processes cause them. Researchers thought that the high pressures would produce an implosion which would intuitively produce pressure waves. However, they had not been able to connect the dots between the high pressure and the specific kind of seismic waves — called shear (or distortional) seismic waves — produced by deep-focus earthquakes. (You can feel distortional energy if you hold your forearm and then twist it.)

In her new paper, Markenscoff completes her explanation of this mystery that occurs under ultra-high pressures. She unraveled the mystery in a string of papers beginning in 2019. In addition, her solution gives insight into many other phenomena such as planetary impacts and planetary formation that share similar geophysical processes.

“This is a perfect example of how deep mathematical modeling rigorously rooted in mechanics and physics can help us solve mysteries in nature. Professor Markenscoff’s work can have profound impact not only on how we understand deep-focus earthquakes, but also on how we might controllably use dynamic phase transformations in engineering materials to our benefit,” said Huajian Gao, a Distinguished University Professor in Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University and the Editor of the Journal of the Mechanics and Physics of Solids where Markenscoff’s paper appears.

From transforming rock to earthquake

It has been well recognized that the high pressures that exist between 400 and 700 kilometers below the surface of the earth can cause olivine rock to undergo a phase transformation into a denser type of rock called spinel. This is analogous to how coal can transform into diamond, which also happens deep in Earth’s mantle.

Going from olivine to denser spinel leads to reductions in volume of rock as atoms move closer to each other under great pressure. This can be called “volume collapse.” This volume collapse and the associated “transformational faulting” has been considered the predominant cause for deep-focus earthquakes. However, until now, there was no model based on volume collapse that predicted the shear (distortional) seismic waves that actually arrive at the earth’s surface during deep-focus earthquakes. For this reason other models were also considered, and the state of affairs remained stagnant.

Markenscoff has now solved this mystery using fundamental mathematical physics and mechanics by discovering instabilities that occur at very high pressures. One instability concerns the shape of the expanding region of transforming rock and the other instability concerns its growth.

For the expanding regions of this phase transformation from olivine to spinel to grow large, these transforming regions with large densification will assume a flattened “pancake-like” shape that minimizes the energy required for the densified region to propagate in the untransformed medium as it grows large. This is a symmetry breaking mode which can occur under the very high pressures that exist where deep-focus earthquakes originate, and it is this symmetry breaking that creates the shear deformation responsible for the shear waves that reach Earth’s surface. Previously, researchers assumed symmetry-preserving spherical expansion, which would not result in the shear seismic waves. They did not know that symmetry would be allowed to be broken.

“Breaking the spherical symmetry of the shape of the transforming rock minimizes the energy required for the propagating region of phase transformation to grow large,” said Markenscoff. “You do not spend energy to move the surface of a large sphere, but only the perimeter.”

In addition, Markenscoff explained that inside the expanding region of phase transformation of rock, there is no particle motion and no kinetic energy (it is a “lacuna”), and, thus, the energy that radiates out is maximized. This explains why the seismic waves can get to the surface, rather than much of the energy dissipating in the interior of the Earth.

Markenscoff’s analytical model for the deformation fields of the expanding seismic source is based on the dynamic generalization of the seminal Eshelby (1957) inclusion which satisfies the lacuna theorem (Atiya et al, 1970). The energetics of the expanding region of phase transformation are governed by Noether’s (1918) theorem of theoretical physics through which she obtained the instabilities that create a growing and fast moving avalanche of collapsing volume under pressure. This is the second discovered instability (regarding growth): once an arbitrarily small densified flattened region has been triggered, under a critical pressure it will continue to grow without needing further energy. (It just keeps collapsing “like a house of cards”.) Thus, the mystery is resolved: although it is a shear source, what drives deep-focus earthquake propagation is the pressure acting on the change in volume.

When asked to reflect on her discovery that deep-focus earthquakes could be described with the theorems that are the bedrock of mathematical physics, she said, “I feel like I have bonded to nature. I have discovered the beauty of how nature works. It’s the first time in my life. Before it was putting a little step on someone else’s steps. I felt this immense joy.”

Relevant discovery

The deep-focus earthquakes are only one of the phenomena in which these instabilities manifest themselves. They also occur in other phenomena of dynamic phase transformations under high pressures, such as planetary impacts and amorphization. Today, there are new experimental facilities such as the National Ignition Facility (NIF) managed by Lawrence Liver National Laboratory in which researchers are able to study materials under extremely high pressures that were impossible to test before.

The new work from Markenscoff provides an important demonstration and reminder that gaining deeper understanding of the mysteries of nature often requires the insights that can be gained by harnessing the fundamentals of mathematical physics together with experimental research done in extreme conditions.

In fact, Markenscoff co-organized two National Science Foundation (NSF) funded workshops at UC San Diego in 2016 and 2019 which brought together geophysicists and seismologists with mechanicians to ensure that these research communities remain aware of the methodologies and techniques developed in mechanics.

“Our education systems should continue to invest in the teaching of the fundamentals of science as the pillars for the advancement of knowledge, which can be achieved by interdisciplinary convergence of theory, experiments and data science,” said Markenscoff.

She also noted the importance of the research support she has received over the years from the US National Science Foundation (NSF).

“Knowing that my NSF program manager believed that it was possible to solve this ‘mystery’ and funded me, bolstered both my confidence and my determination to persevere”, said Markenscoff. “I point this out as a reminder for all of us. It’s also critical that we give thoughtful and considered encouragement to our students and colleagues. Knowing that people whom you respect believe in you and your work can be very powerful.”


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Diabetes-prevention program supports addition of years to average lifespan




Participants were part of a new study from West Virginia University’s School of Public Health.

You can do a lot in four years: go from white to black belt in taekwondo, plant a dwarf apple tree and pick its fruit, see your grandchild off to college and attend her graduation or get your own degree. But the most severe complications of diabetes–from stroke to neuropathy to amputation–can make activities like these difficult or impossible for some people.

In a new study, West Virginia University School of Public Health researchers found that taking part in a year-long diabetes-prevention program supports the addition of 4.4 quality-adjusted life-years to participants’ average lifespan.

“Fatalism can play a major role in community health–like, ‘Oh, yeah, my family has diabetes. I’m going to get it eventually,’” said Adam Baus, a research assistant professor in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences, who led the study. “But that doesn’t have to be the case. Not at all.”

The results appear in Perspectives in Health Information Management.

Quality-adjusted life-years–or QALYS–don’t just take lifespan into account. They also factor in physical, mental, social and functional health. QALYS help to measure disease burden, and show how the quality and quantity of life lived is impacted by taking part in interventions.

Baus and his colleagues analyzed data from West Virginia Health Connection, a new online network of clinical and community-based partners working together to prevent and control chronic diseases–like diabetes–in the state.

West Virginia Health Connection is a collaborative effort between the West Virginia Bureau for Public Health’s Division of Health Promotion and Chronic Disease and the WVU School of Public Health’s Office of Health Services Research.

The data encompassed 320 individuals who had completed the National Diabetes Prevention Program.

Using the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Diabetes Impact Tool, the researchers analyzed the data for demographic information; weight, height and BMI; and return-on-investment indicators, including diabetes incidence, medical costs and QALYS.

They found that participating in the program caused an increase of 0.2 QALYS after one year, with projected increases of 1.1 QALYS after three years and 4.4 QALYS after 10 years.

At the start of programming, 80.3% of participants were obese, 19.4% were overweight and only 0.3% had a normal weight. By the end of programming, participants had lost 13.6 pounds–or 6.3% of their total body weight–on average. Projecting three years out, this represents a 32.4 percent overall risk reduction for developing diabetes.

“It’s really important for our community partners to be able to have a good, reliable analytic system that they can use to document the programming that they’re providing and to be able to demonstrate the effectiveness of their program,” said Baus, who directs the WVU Office of Health Services Research. “That’s challenging for a lot of people in the community who might not be accustomed to tracking data. They need a good, secure way of doing that and some backbone support so that they can analyze their data and show their program’s impact. It’s really important for the longevity of their program.”

Baus and his colleagues discovered that the program was associated with a $120 decrease in annual medical costs per participant. After three years of participation, annual savings amount to $341 per person. After 10 years? $989.

By year three, the net cost to run the program falls to $50 per person. Projecting 10 years out, the programming generates enough healthcare savings that it more than offsets the cost of running the program itself.

“There’s some frustration historically among providers who know their patients could benefit from extra support through prevention programs like this but do not have an easy mechanism to make the referrals, know that patients are attending classes and know what the outcomes are over time,” Baus said.

West Virginia Health Connection addresses this need by essentially putting all diabetes-prevention programming in the state under one roof, connecting primary care physicians and specialists to community-based health leaders providing this needed programming.

“It’s a secure registry for health information to be collected and analyzed so that clinicians can document the care that they’re providing and get reports on those data,” Baus said. “It’s really important for our community partners to be able to have a good, reliable analytics system that they can use to document the programming that they’re providing and demonstrate the effectiveness of their efforts.”

And it’s especially important in West Virginia, which has the nation’s second-highest rate of diabetes among adults, at 15%. As of 2018, another 11% of adults were diagnosed as pre-diabetic, and still more remain undiagnosed.

“Our state has significant public health burden with prediabetes and diabetes, but we also have amazing, committed partners working to reverse that trend,” Baus said. “Working together, we can do this.”


West Virginia Health Connection is funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention through the West Virginia Bureau for Public Health, Division of Health Promotion and Chronic Disease. The initiative is also supported by the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation and the Health Policy Research Consortium. This content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the CDC, WVBPH, the Benedum Foundation, or HPRC.


Title: Informatics-supported diabetes prevention programming in West Virginia


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Of mice and men: Mutation linked to autism impairs oxytocin-mediated social behavior




Mutations associated with autism can inhibit the release of the bonding hormone oxytocin and cause abnormal social behavior in mice

Autism spectrum disorder is a neurodevelopmental condition involving impaired social abilities, and this makes it a fascinating subject for neuroscientists like Prof. Teiichi Furuichi of the Tokyo University of Science who study the neuroscience of social behavior. Prof. Furuichi and his colleagues have previously worked on developing mouse models of autism to unravel the condition’s neurochemical mechanisms, and in a paper recently published in the prestigious Journal of Neuroscience, they provide evidence that a genetic mutation associated with autism can impair the release of a peptide called oxytocin that plays an important role in regulating social behavior. This finding promises to broaden our understanding of the neurobiology of social behavior.

The gene that Prof. Furuichi’s team chose to study is Caps2, which encodes a protein called Ca2+-dependent activator protein for secretion 2 (CAPS2) that regulates the release of brain chemicals (or “neurotransmitters”). Previous studies have shown that CAPS2 deficiencies in mice cause behavioral impairments such as reduced sociality, increased anxiety, and disrupted circadian rhythms. Furthermore, a study of Japanese patients with autism spectrum disorder revealed that some of them had Caps2 mutations that adversely affect the CAPS2 protein’s functions. Prof. Furuichi and his colleagues had previously discovered that the CAPS2 protein is expressed in neurons in the hypothalamus and pituitary gland that release the neuropeptide oxytocin. This information formed the basis of their recent study. As Prof. Furuichi explains, “We hypothesized that CAPS2 deficiencies in mice should alter oxytocin release, which should in turn result in impaired social behavior.”

To test this hypothesis, researchers Shuhei Fujima, Graduate Student at Tokyo University of Science; Yoshitake Sano, Junior Associate Professor at Tokyo University of Science; Yo Shinoda, Associate Professor at Tokyo University of Pharmacy and Life Sciences; Tetsushi Sadakata, Associate Professor in Gunma University; Manabu Abe, Associate Professor at Niigata University; and Kenji Sakimura, a Fellow of Niigata University, among others, led by Prof. Furuichi conducted a series of experiments involving mice that carried genetic alterations that prevented them from expressing the CAPS2 protein. These mice had lower-than-normal oxytocin levels in their blood but higher-than-normal oxytocin levels in the hypothalamus and pituitary gland. The researchers interpreted this finding as evidence that CAPS2 deficiencies impede the normal release of oxytocin from these brain regions into the bloodstream.

Unsurprisingly, the reduced bloodstream levels of oxytocin had clear behavioral effects. When placed inside a rectangular box, the oxytocin neuron-specific CAPS2-deficient mice were unwilling to spend much time in the center of the box, and the researchers interpreted this as evidence of increased anxiety about the risk of a predator attacking them. The CAPS2-deficient mice also exhibited diminished willingness to engage in social interactions when introduced to unfamiliar mice. Interestingly, spraying an oxytocin solution into the noses of the CAPS2-deficient mice acted to restore their willingness to socially interact with unfamiliar mice.

Based on these findings, Prof. Furuichi and his colleagues conclude that the CAPS2 protein plays a critical role in facilitating the release of peripheral oxytocin into the bloodstream. They similarly suggest that CAPS2 is also involved in the release of central oxytocin into the brain regions relating to the control of sociality. Given the key role that oxytocin plays in regulating social behaviors, this could help to explain how mutations in the Caps2 gene could lead to atypical patterns of social behavior in persons with autism spectrum disorder. When asked about the social significance of his team’s work, Prof. Furuichi remarks, “We believe that this research, although basic, is an important achievement that will contribute to the development of tools for the early molecular diagnosis and effective treatment of autism spectrum disorder.”

Given the relatively high prevalence of autism and how extremely disabling severe cases can be, the development of effective treatments would have major benefits for people with autism and the society as a whole.


About The Tokyo University of Science

Tokyo University of Science (TUS) is a well-known and respected university, and the largest science-specialized private research university in Japan, with four campuses in central Tokyo and its suburbs and in Hokkaido. Established in 1881, the university has continually contributed to Japan’s development in science through inculcating the love for science in researchers, technicians, and educators.

With a mission of “Creating science and technology for the harmonious development of nature, human beings, and society”, TUS has undertaken a wide range of research from basic to applied science. TUS has embraced a multidisciplinary approach to research and undertaken intensive study in some of today’s most vital fields. TUS is a meritocracy where the best in science is recognized and nurtured. It is the only private university in Japan that has produced a Nobel Prize winner and the only private university in Asia to produce Nobel Prize winners within the natural sciences field.


About Professor Teiichi Furuichi from Tokyo University of Science

Teiichi Furuichi, PhD, has served as a Professor at the Tokyo University of Science since 2011. He has previously worked at the RIKEN Brain Science Institute, Saitama University, Hiroshima University, the University of Tokyo, Japan’s National Institute for Basic Biology, and the State University of New York at Stony Brook. His research interests include the molecular mechanisms of brain development and the transcriptomic basis of postnatal development of the mouse cerebellum. He has authored over 150 original articles.

Funding information

This work was supported by the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science; the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology; and the NOVARTIS Foundation (Japan) for the Promotion of Science.

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Megaprojects threaten water justice for local communities




Credit: Photo: Dr Scott Hawken.

Urban megaprojects tend to be the antithesis of good urban planning. They have a negative impact on local water systems, deprive local communities of water-related human rights, and their funders and sponsors have little accountability for their impact.

These are the findings of the University of Adelaide’s Dr Scott Hawken from the School of Architecture and Built Environment who led a review of the impact of urban megaprojects on water justice in South East Asia.

“Urban megaprojects have severe implications for environmental processes,” said Dr Hawken.

“They have a major impact on hydrological systems and during all phases of development affect water security and human rights.

“As well as interrupting urban water flows and waste removal, they cause biodiversity degradation and loss of arable landscapes, and increase pollution and change the flood regimes of rivers.”

The study, published in the journal Cities, focussed on the Phu My Hung project in Vietnam, the Amarapura project in Myanmar and Boeung Kak Lake in Cambodia, and is the result of Dr Hawken’s engagement with recent calls from the United Nations for greater accountability in megaprojects globally.

Urban megaprojects have been a key mode of development in Southeast Asia since the 1980s. Between three and 14 per cent of GDP is invested in these kind of developments in SE Asia and eight per cent globally. They can include urban regeneration schemes, transport and energy infrastructure, industrial corridors, city clusters, new towns, innovation districts, science and technology parks and sports infrastructure.

“The projects we looked at are typical of most major cities in Southeast Asia in that they are located near coasts or major rivers which exposes people who live there to extreme weather events such as floods and erosion,” said Dr Hawken.

“At every stage of these projects there needs to be a more systematic approach to sustainability especially when assessing their impact on water security. The community needs to be more involved and funders and sponsors need to be more accountable for the impact.

“Wealthier residents tend to benefit from these urban enclaves while they dramatically displace and disrupt existing economics and social relations. Poor socio-economic urban residents are disproportionately adversely affected.”

Megaprojects are often publicly positioned as economic benefactors for cities with governments and developers framing them as delivering wealth and new technologies to urban regions.

“Considering the prominence of this development model, it is unacceptable that there is so little information or recourse when these projects do not deliver on their promises,” said Dr Hawken.

“Existing urban issues are rarely solved by these projects so a new approach is needed to better engage with communities and their socio-ecological relationships with natural water systems. Considering where they are built such projects also expose cities to future climate related disasters such as sea-level rise and flooding.

“Our findings and recommendations are relevant to cities around the world which are in semi-aquatic, delta environments and sensitive water catchment areas.

“Developers need to be accountable for such projects now and into the future.”


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New testing platform for COVID-19 is an efficient and accurate alternative to gold-standard RT-qPCR tests




A microchip technology test kit may facilitate point-of-care testing in remote locations, clinics, and airports while providing similar accuracy to the tube-based real-time PCR tests, investigators report in The Journal of Molecular Diagnostics

Philadelphia, May 18, 2021 – Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, supply chain shortages of reagents and test kits have limited the rapid expansion of clinical testing needed to contain the virus. Investigators have developed and validated a new microchip real-time technology platform that uses 10-fold less reagents compared to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)-approved tube-based RT-PCR tests, and reports results in as little as 30 minutes. Its accuracy was 100 percent predictive in clinical samples, investigators explain in the Journal of Molecular Diagnostics, published by Elsevier.

“Sensitivity is critical for early detection of COVID-19 infection where the viral load is minimal to prevent further spreading of the disease. During this pandemic, numerous testing assays have been developed, sacrificing sensitivity for speed and cost,” explains lead investigator Peter J. Unrau, PhD, Department of Molecular Biology and Biochemistry, Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, BC, Canada. “This research offers a cheaper, faster alternative to the most reliable and sensitive test currently used worldwide, without sacrificing sensitivity and reproducibility.”

Researchers validated a microchip PCR technology for detection of SARS-CoV-2 in clinical samples. Empty microchips with 30 microwells were manufactured from aluminum sheets and coated with surface modifiers. They were then filled with CDC-authorized primers and probes to detect SARS-CoV-2. They were individually packaged and sent to a laboratory for sample validation and testing. Real-time qPCR was performed using 1.2 microliter reaction volume per reaction on a microchip-based PCR analyzer using AriaDNA software to control the instrument and obtain PCR results.

Nasopharyngeal swabs from eight patients with positive COVID-19 test results and 13 patients with negative COVID-19 test results were collected at St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver, Canada and tested with the microchip RT-qPCR kit. Of the 21 patient samples, eight tested positive, 12 tested negative, and one included sample was invalid, which tested negative in both the microchip RT-qPCR assay and hospital testing. The CDC standards deemed the sample invalid as the human internal control was not detected in this sample. The microchip kit miniaturized the reaction volumes needed by 10-fold, resulting in lower reagent consumption and faster assay times (in as little as 30 minutes compared to about 70 minutes), while maintaining the same gold standard in sensitivity as higher volume techniques. Because the kit comes preloaded with SARS-CoV-2 primers and probes, it may further reduce operator-associated errors, improving the reliability of analysis in remote settings.

Available internationally, the low-energy (100 watt), compact, lightweight microchip analyzer and COVID-19 detection kits developed by Lumex Instruments Canada and validated by Dr. Unrau and his colleagues may enable point-of-care testing in remote locations, clinics, and airports.

“Although further testing of additional clinical samples and sample types may be needed before this assay can be widely deployed,” Dr. Unrau says, “these preliminary results demonstrate a promising, versatile technology that can be easily configured and mobilized to detect infections of current and future emerging viruses, overcoming current bottlenecks and ensuring a faster response in the future.”


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