Research roundup – March

A review of the latest scientific discoveries

The Hamilton Building                                                                                                                                                     Photo Credit:Joe McCallion/ Trinity News

Technology: New smartphone app can monitor blood pressure

Researchers at Michigan State University and the University of Maryland have developed a smartphone attachment which can monitor blood pressure. In the world we live in today, heart disease and risk of stroke are some of the major health concerns confronting the majority of people. A standard method of determining a person’s risk of heart disease or stroke is to measure their blood pressure. The familiar device we’ve all encountered in the doctors surgery, is a cuff tied around the lower bicep, to which pressure is applied on the artery, with the corresponding blood flow then being monitored. But now scientists have found a way to make this device portable.

Smartphones already contain most of the hardware necessary for a portable blood pressure monitor and as such, the technology was designed around this fact. The technology works by placing a finger on a pressure sensor and then being instructed by the app to gradually increase the applied pressure, while a sensor measures the blood volume by shining light on the finger and measuring the amount of light that is absorbed. The app then takes this data and uses it to calculate the person’s blood pressure. The technology has the potential to be particularly helpful in poorer developing regions, where access to more conventional blood pressure monitors is low, but where smartphone ownership is more prevalent.

Chemistry: Scientists develop a new type of catalyst for activating carbon-hydrogen bonds

Researchers in Beijing have reported a new synthetic method for activating carbon-hydrogen bonds in a class of compounds known as ketones. The ultimate goal of synthetic chemistry is to assemble complex, useful molecules in the most efficient way possible. Research in this field has contributed to the development of pharmaceuticals that can treat diseases, agrochemicals that control crop pests, and materials for electronic devices to name just a few.

Many of the methods employed in synthesising these molecules involve reactions on ‘synthetic handles’ within the building blocks of those molecules, reactive centres such as carbon-oxygen and carbon-nitrogen bonds. However, the majority of organic molecules contain many more carbon-hydrogen bonds, which are relatively unreactive, in their structures than carbon-oxygen and carbon-nitrogen bonds. Thus, developing methods to activate carbon-hydrogen bonds for chemical modification is highly coveted in synthetic organic chemistry.

In the paper, the researchers describe the development of a catalyst which can react with the carbon-oxygen double bond in ketones, activating the molecule in such a way that a nearby carbon-hydrogen bond, known as the beta carbon-hydrogen position, can be chemically modified. New chemical substituents can be substituted onto the beta carbon, eschewing the usually unreactive carbon-hydrogen bond, to allow efficient chemical modification. It is expected that this new synthetic methodology will see widespread application in the pharmaceutical industry.

Archaeology: A new perspective on early human migration out of Africa

In attempting to piece together the origin of early man, and his colonisation of Asia and Australia, archaeologists and anthropologists have worked off the original theory that approximately 75 to 124 thousand years ago, there was an abortive expansion of homo sapiens out of Africa into the Levant. It was hypothesised that an adverse change in environmental and climatic conditions lead to their premature demise. Following that, scientists proposed that there was a subsequent, more sustained migration from Africa which was successful and its participants are who contribute to the current human genomic composition in modern day Asia and Australia.

This hypothesis has been challenged, however, by results from the latest in analysis and dating technology. Using ancient DNA analysis and electron spin resonance technology, archaeologists have dated stone tools and early human remains found along the Levantine corridor into Asia, southeast Asia and Australia and have determined that they likely date from the earlier period of migration, which was originally thought to have been abortive. It indicates that some of these early human migrators actually ventured further on into Asia while those remaining in the Levant expired.

Remains found inland along the Levant to Asia route also potentially refute the previous theory that migrants to Asia hugged the southern coast along the Indian Ocean, foraging from the sea as they migrated. It is now believed that instead, they traversed east via an inland route, exploiting rivers and lakes as their source of food, evidenced by the discovery of marine animal remains hundreds of kilometers inland along the migratory route. This new evidence indicates that extant human genomic composition may have its ancestral origins in an earlier wave of migrators who ventured out of Africa.

Biology: What city you live in can affect your skin microbiome and your susceptibility to skin disease

Our skin is our first line of defense against infection and injury. Inhabiting our skin is the microbiome, a community of various bacteria, viruses and fungi whose stability, diversity and composition is key to human skin health and resistance to harmful bacteria and viruses.

An investigation recently conducted by researchers in China, sought to compare the microbiome compositions of people living in urban areas such as megacities (cities characterised as having populations greater than ten million) and people living in rural areas.

Using statistical analysis, the researchers identified that the microbiome composition of individuals living in cities was less diverse and more fragile than those living in rural areas, and that in cities microbiome compositions were entirely unique to the local environmental factors, such as pollution and air composition, in those urban areas. The evidence also pointed towards middle and lower income families being the most affected. The lower diversity and increased fragility of the microbiome composition in urban dwellers was directly correlated with increased susceptibility to skin diseases such as eczema and psoriasis.

The report concluded that 80% of urban residents are exposed to pollution levels higher than acceptable air quality standards listed by the World Health Organisation, and that this has a direct adverse effect on the skin microbiome of individuals. Furthermore, the report stated that a better understanding of skin microbiome composition and its relation to different urban centres would provide medical practitioners with a better ability to treat resulting adverse health effects afflicting urban dwellers.