End Of The Road

After 59 years, the iconic Route 66 enters the realm of history in this week in 1985, when the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials decertifies the road and votes to remove all its highway signs.
Measuring some 2,200 miles in its heyday, Route 66 stretched from Chicago, Illinois to Santa Monica, California, passing through eight states. According to a New York Times article about its decertification, most of Route 66 followed a path through the wilderness forged in 1857 by U.S. Navy Lieutenant Edward Beale at the head of a caravan of camels. Over the years, wagon trains and cattlemen eventually made way for trucks and passenger automobiles.

route 66

Route 66 was the scene of a mass westward migration during the 1930s, when more than 200,000 people traveled from the poverty-stricken Dust Bowl to California. John Steinbeck immortalized the highway, which he called the “Mother Road,” in his classic 1939 novel “The Grapes of Wrath.”

Often called the “Main Street of America,” Route 66 became a pop culture mainstay over the years, inspiring its own song (written in 1947 by Bobby Troup, “Route 66″ was later recorded by artists as varied as Nat “King” Cole, Chuck Berry and the Rolling Stones) as well as a 1960s television series. More recently, the historic highway was featured prominently in the hit animated film “Cars” (2006).

route 66 cars 2006

Well if you ever plan to motor west
Just take my way that’s the highway that’s the best
Get your kicks on Route 66
Well it winds from Chicago to L.A.
More than 2000 miles all the way
Get your kicks on Route 66
Well it goes from St. Louis down to Missouri
Oklahoma city looks oh so pretty
You’ll see Amarillo and Gallup, New Mexico
Flagstaff, Arizona don’t forget Winona
Kingman, Barstow, San Bernadino
Would you get hip to this kindly tip
And go take that California trip
Get your kicks on Route 66

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Caring For The Carer

Seventy-eight percent of employees at Houston hospitals are overweight or obese, according to a study by researchers at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) School of Public Health. The research results were published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.

Employees from six hospitals across Houston, with the exception of physicians, were invited to participate in a survey about their health status and diet in 2012. A total of 924 employees responded to the survey, most of whom classified themselves as hospital administrators or technicians.

“Seventy-eight percent is higher than the national average but not shocking because our study probably attracted employees who wanted to lose weight. Regardless, it is troubling because these are hospital employees active in the workforce and we need them to be healthy. Because obesity is linked to so many cardiometabolic risks, such as elevated glucose and lipids, this calls for immediate intervention to prevent chronic diseases,” said Shreela Sharma, Ph.D., R.D., first author on the paper and associate professor in the Department of Epidemiology, Human Genetics and Environmental Sciences at UTHealth School of Public Health.

According to the results, there was no significant difference in the intake of fruits and vegetables among normal weight, overweight and obese participants, which was generally low across all groups. However, as compared to those of normal weight, obese participants had significantly higher daily consumption of white potatoes such as French fries, regular fat foods (versus reduced or low fat), sugary beverages and added butter and margarine.

Overall, most participants in the study led a sedentary lifestyle. Sixty-five percent of participants reported no days of vigorous physical activity and 48 percent reported no days of moderate physical activity. However, overweight and obese participants spent more time on sedentary behaviours such as watching television. Obese participants also spent more time playing computer games and sitting during the week and on weekends.

“It’s not just about what you don’t do or don’t eat. Behaviours have an additive effect; obesity can happen not just because you didn’t eat enough fruits and vegetables, but because you also ate more fried foods and foods that are higher in fat and not just because you weren’t very active, but also because you were sedentary more often,” said Sharma, who is also a faculty member with the Michael & Susan Dell Center for Healthy Living at the School of Public Health.

Hospital workers are part of a group that suffers from what Sharma calls “the nurturer effect.”

“People who take care of others on a regular basis are generally less likely to take care of themselves. The focus of hospitals is on patient care so sometimes the workers’ own care can take a back seat,” said Sharma.

Nearly 79 percent of survey participants were dissatisfied with their worksite wellness programs and dissatisfaction was highest among obese participants. Given that employees are spending a majority of their waking hours at work, Sharma recommends further investment in worksite-based strategies to promote physical activity and healthy eating, such as healthy vending machine options and accessible walking paths.

“These results highlight the need for hospital employers to better understand, support and nurture the health of their employees,” said Sharma, who added that the local hospitals are interested and invested in employee wellness.

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Puberty Clock

Like humans, insects go through puberty. The process is known as metamorphosis. Examples include caterpillars turning into butterflies and maggots turning into flies.

But, it has been a long-standing mystery as to what internal mechanisms control how insects go through metamorphosis and why it is irreversible.

Now, a team of scientists, led by an assistant professor at the University of California, Riverside, has solved the mystery. They also believe the findings, which were published in the journal PLOS Genetics, could be applied to mammals, including humans.

Using the model organism fruit flies, the researchers found that the amount of DNA in the fruit fly controls the initial production of steroid hormones, which signal the start of metamorphosis.

More specifically, the cells that produce steroid hormones keep duplicating their DNA without cell division, making their nuclei huge. The team found that this amount of DNA in steroid hormone-producing cells is a critical indicator of their juvenile development, and it even determines when the insects get into metamorphosis.

Naoki Yamanaka, an assistant professor of entomology at UC Riverside, likened the accumulation of DNA to rings found inside trees that are used to date trees.

“The amount of DNA is like an internal timer for insect development,” Yamanaka said. “It tells the insect, ‘OK, I will grow up now.'”

Their finding explains, for the first time, why insect metamorphosis, just like human puberty, is an irreversible process. It is irreversible since DNA duplication cannot be reversed in cells. Once the cells increase the amount of DNA and start producing steroid hormones, that is the point of no return; they cannot go back to their childhood.

The findings could have multiple applications. In the short term, they could be used to help control agricultural pests by manipulating their steroid signaling pathways. They could also be used to aid beneficial insects, such as bees.

In the long term, the findings could also be used to develop better ways to treat diseases in humans related to sexual maturation, since human puberty is also controlled by steroid hormones, just like insects. The results may also aide future studies on steroid-related diseases such as breast cancer, prostate cancer, and menopause-related symptoms.

Yamanaka will continue this research by focusing on other insects, such as bumblebees and mosquitos, to see if they have a similar internal timer.

butterfly

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Me And My Arrow*

*Harry Nilsson’s Song About A Boy And His Dog.

Children get more satisfaction from relationships with their pets than with their brothers or sisters, according to new research from the University of Cambridge. Children also appear to get on even better with their animal companions than with siblings.

The research adds to increasing evidence that household pets may have a major influence on child development, and could have a positive impact on children’s social skills and emotional well-being.

Pets are almost as common as siblings in western households, although there are relatively few studies on the importance of child-pet relationships.

”Anyone who has loved a childhood pet knows that we turn to them for companionship and disclosure, just like relationships between people,” says Matt Cassells, a Gates Cambridge Scholar at the Department of Psychiatry, who led the study. “We wanted to know how strong these relationships are with pets relative to other close family ties. Ultimately this may enable us to understand how animals contribute to healthy child development”

This study, published in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, was conducted in collaboration with the WALTHAM Centre for Pet Nutrition, part of Mars Petcare and co-funded by the Economic and Social Research Council as part of a larger study, led by Prof Claire Hughes at the University of Cambridge Centre for Family Research. Researchers surveyed 12 year old children from 77 families with one or more pets of any type and more than one child at home. Children reported strong relationships with their pets relative to their siblings, with lower levels of conflict and greater satisfaction in owners of dogs than other kinds of pets.

”Even though pets may not fully understand or respond verbally, the level of disclosure to pets was no less than to siblings,” says Cassels. “The fact that pets cannot understand or talk back may even be a benefit as it means they are completely non-judgmental.

“While previous research has often found that boys report stronger relationships with their pets than girls do, we actually found the opposite. While boys and girls were equally satisfied with their pets, girls reported more disclosure, companionship, and conflict with their pet than did boys, perhaps indicating that girls may interact with their pets in more nuanced ways.”

“Evidence continues to grow showing that pets have positive benefits on human health and community cohesion,” says Dr Nancy Gee, Human-Animal Interaction Research Manager at WALTHAM and a co-author of the study. “The social support that adolescents receive from pets may well support psychological well-being later in life but there is still more to learn about the long term impact of pets on children’s development.”

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Andean Bears

A recent wildlife survey led by SERNANP (Servicio Nacional de Áreas Naturales Protegidas por el Estado) and WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society) in the Historic Sanctuary of Machu Picchu in Peru has confirmed that the world-famous site is also home to a biologically important and iconic species: the Andean bear (Tremarctos ornatus).

Funded by the Andean Bear Conservation Alliance, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the year-long survey revealed the presence of Andean bears in more than 95 percent of the 368-square-kilometer study area, which includes the famous Incan ruins of Machu Picchu, one of the most visited places in South America. While it was previously known that Andean bears existed in the sanctuary, the new survey’s findings reveal a much wider presence of bears throughout the protected area.

The Historic Sanctuary of Machu Picchu is classified as a World Heritage site by UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) and is one of only 35 sites worldwide listed as a mixed natural and cultural site. The findings from this survey are critical for establishing a baseline for future assessments and to plan for the long-term conservation of Andean bears both within and beyond the sanctuary.

“It is amazing that this world famous location is also important habitat for Andean bears,” said Dr. Isaac Goldstein, Coordinator of WCS’s Andean Bear Program. “The results of the survey will help us to understand the needs of this species and how to manage Andean bears in this location.”

With a range stretching from Venezuela to Bolivia, the Andean bear inhabits the mist-shrouded montane forests and upland grasslands of the Andes Mountains and is South America’s only native bear species. The Andean bear is sometimes called the spectacled bear due to yellowish or white patches that surround its eyes. The species features prominently in the cultural fabric of the region, yet much is still unknown about the behaviour and ecology of the Andean bear.

The survey results also show that the Andean bears of Machu Picchu are not an isolated population, but part of a much larger population connected by montane grasslands that occur over an elevation of 3,400 meters (more than 11,000 feet above sea level). Understanding this connectivity will help wildlife managers to maintain the corridors needed for healthy bear populations. The survey itself is part of a larger effort by SERNANP and its partners to monitor Andean bears across the Machupicchu-Choquequirao Landscape, a large mountainous region containing both archeological sites and natural areas.

Fieldwork to collect data on the presence of Andean bears in the Historic Sanctuary of Machu Picchu was conducted between August 2014 and September 2015. A team of more than 30 trained researchers and park officials looked for signs of bears in a variety of habitats in the Machu Picchu protected area, ranging from Andean rainforest to montane grasslands. The study area was divided into sections 16 square kilometres in size (more than 6 square miles, the typical size of a female Andean bear’s range) to evaluate the bear’s presence in the protected area. Researchers looked for bear activity such as scat, footprints, and signs of feeding on terrestrial bromeliads (plants native to tropical and subtropical regions) along 166 kilometers (more than 100 miles) of transects throughout the sanctuary.

In addition to finding signs of bears in most of the sanctuary, the research team also determined that the presence of cattle is a potential risk to Andean bears in the sanctuary. The survey results will help inform the effective management of the Historic Sanctuary of Machu Picchu, the most visited protected area in Peru.

WCS has contributed to extensive research on the ecological needs of the Andean bear throughout its range. In 2014, WCS published the document “Andean Bear Priority Conservation Units in Bolivia and Peru” that consolidated information from 25 Andean bear experts on the distribution of the species and recommendations for conservation. In the U.S., WCS’s Queens Zoo is home to the only Andean bear exhibit in New York City. Queens Zoo Director and Curator Scott Silver serves as Coordinator for the Andean Bear Species Survival Plan (SSP), a cooperative breeding program administered by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums that ensures genetic variability within accredited zoo populations.

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Domestic Cats

DNA found at archaeological sites reveals that the origins of our domestic cat are in the Near East and ancient Egypt. Cats were domesticated by the first farmers some 10,000 years ago. They later spread across Europe and other parts of the world via the trade hub of Egypt. The DNA analysis also revealed that most of these ancient cats had stripes: spotted cats were uncommon until the Middle Ages.

Five subspecies of the wildcat Felis silvestris are known today. All skeletons look exactly alike and are indistinguishable from that of our domestic cat. As a result, it’s impossible to see with the naked eye which of these subspecies was domesticated in a distant past. Paleogeneticist Claudio Ottoni and his colleagues from KU Leuven (University of Leuven) and the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences set out to look for the answer in the genetic code. They used the DNA from bones, teeth, skin, and hair of over 200 cats found at archaeological sites in the Near East, Africa, and Europe. These remains were between 100 and 9,000 years old.

The DNA analysis revealed that all domesticated cats descend from the African wildcat or Felis silvestris lybica, a wildcat subspecies found in North Africa and the Near East. Cats were domesticated some 10,000 years ago by the first farmers in the Near East. The first agricultural settlements probably attracted wildcats because they were rife with rodents. The farmers welcomed the wildcats as they kept the stocks of cereal grain free from vermin. Over time, man and animal grew closer, and selection based on behaviour eventually led to the domestication of the wildcat.

Migrating farmers took the domesticated cat with them. At a later stage, the cats also spread across Europe and elsewhere via trade hub Egypt. Used to fight vermin on Egyptian trade ships, the cats travelled to large parts of South West Asia, Africa, and Europe. Bones of cats with an Egyptian signature have even been found at Viking sites near the Baltic Sea.

“It’s still unclear, however, whether the Egyptian domestic cat descends from cats imported from the Near East or whether a separate, second domestication took place in Egypt,” says researcher Claudio Ottoni. “Further research will have to show.” The scientists were also able to determine the coat pattern based on the DNA of the old cat bones and mummies. They found that the striped cat was much more common in ancient times. This is also illustrated by Egyptian murals: they always depict striped cats. The blotched pattern did not become common until the Middle Ages.

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See also; Domestic Mice.


 

Innovation

It Takes A Village.

What innovation is and how it can be cultivated are two of the compelling questions raised in a paper exploring the potential for fostering innovation in students published in Technology and Innovation, Journal of the National Academy of Inventors®.

“Relatively little is known about how we can cultivate innovative thinking,” said paper lead author Victor Poirier of the Institute for Advanced Discovery & Innovation at the University of South Florida (USF), “and even less is known about how we can help individuals use and improve their innovative powers.”

According to the authors, innovation can be defined as “the introduction of something new and different” that is created by inspiration and creativity. Innovation, they said, is “critical to improvements in how we live” and provides “social value.” The beginning of the innovative process is usually associated with “a fragmented inspiration” that is further developed by “joining with other fragmented thoughts to finally arrive at a creative inspiration.”

The authors pointed to six key characteristics of innovation:

* The timing of an innovative idea;

* The environment in which the idea is formulated and developed;

* The time to develop an idea or inspiration;

* The time and organisational environment that allows for idea cross-fertilization;

* Learning from errors; and

* The development of an idea in one field that can be adapted in another.

While education may not be able to create innovative traits in individuals, education may be able to improve the ability of individuals to better utilise the traits of creativity and innovation they already possess. However, how do we cultivate innovative thinking processes and unleash the creative powers of the individual? And, by what processes can educators help individuals to better utilise their innovative traits?

“It takes a village,” explained Poirier, pointing out that Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park was an environment in which a variety of minds and skills came together to achieve innovative processes. Innovative industries such as Bell Labs, Xerox, Apple, and Google, as well as many of the federal government’s laboratory systems, such as NIH and NASA, are examples of creative environments that foster innovation collaboratively.

Innovative processes do not always create something new, said the authors. Sometimes they greatly improve something already in existence or help to solve a problem. Motivation, persistence, and goal setting may also be keys to this process.

“Contrary to the view that inspiration is purely mystic or divine, it is best viewed as an interaction between one’s current knowledge and the information one receives from the world,” suggested the authors. “We do not need to try to create innovative characteristics; rather, we simply need to show individuals how to cultivate innovative thought.”

The first step in encouraging and nurturing inspiration and innovation, said Poirier, is to identify the characteristics and traits that can be fostered and developed through education. These include: abstract thinking and problem solving; a desire to ‘fill gaps’; motivation; creativity; curiosity; taking risks with no fear of failure; a positive attitude; persistence and passion; dissatisfaction with what exists; open-mindedness; and vision.

These characteristics can be foundational to an educational process aimed at unleashing the creative and innovative potential that students possess. Therefore, as Poirier explains, our goal is “to develop an educational process whereby we could show individuals how to fully utilise the innovative traits they have, and awaken traits that are dormant.”

The authors acknowledged that there may be roadblocks or resistance to this process from both students and faculty, as there are many who think that innovative thinking is something inborn in the individual and cannot be learned. However, the potential rewards, including an increase in innovative production, are substantial and warrant meeting and overcoming these challenges.

To that end, Poirier and his co-authors are part of a team at the University of South Florida involved in an experimental training program in innovation. They anticipate future publications in which they will report on the results of those efforts.

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