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News-Medical.net / Nov 1, 2019
Scientists propose new material for regenerative medicine capable of controlling immune response
Сотрудники Томского политехнического университета и Университета Монтаны (США) предложили новый материал для регенеративной медицины. В биоразлагаемый каркас из полимерных нитей, размещаемый в месте повреждения, встраиваются ингибиторы, «выключающие» работу ферментов, отвечающих за реакцию иммунных клеток, что позволяет предотвратить отторжение.
Scientists of Tomsk Polytechnic University jointly with the University of Montana (USA) proposed a new promising material for regenerative medicine for recovery of damaged tissues and blood vessels. This is a 3D scaffold, made of biodegradable material and filled with special inhibitors, which were also obtained at TPU. They literally turn off the work of enzymes, responsible for the inflammation reaction, occurring in immune cells in response to external stimuli. In this case, such an irritant is a regenerative material. According to scientists, the proposed solution is a simpler way to control the immune response compared to existing ones. The results were published in ACS Biomaterials Science & Engineering (IF: 4,511; Q1).
Scaffolds are 3D frames of thin polymer fibers interwoven with each other in different directions. In regenerative medicine, they are used in case of injuries of bone and soft tissues. They are placed in the damaged area and new tissue regenerates through the scaffold and fills the injured area.
TPU and the University of Montana used a biodegradable polycaprolactone polymer for their scaffolds. It makes products more flexible and affordable in comparison with alternatives. The scaffolds made of polycaprolactone were created by the method of electrospinning, producing thinnest fibers from a polymer solution under the electric field. At the stage of obtaining the scaffolds, we introduce inhibitors into the polymer structure. These are two compounds - IQ-1 (full name - 11H-indeno [1,2-b] quinoxaline-11-on oxime) and IQ-1E (full name - 11H-indeno [1,2-b] quinoxaline-11- on O-(O-ethylcarboxymethyl) oxime).
"Inhibitors suppress or slow down physiological and physicochemical processes. They affect enzymes. To do this, the enzyme and the inhibitor must fit together like a lock and a key. One of the groups of enzymes responsible for the inflammatory process is the JNK group" - Ksenia Stankevich explains. "Earlier we obtained new promising inhibitors, demonstrating high biological activity in inhibiting the functioning of these enzymes, such as IQ-1 and IQ-1E. Our scaffolds differ in the use of specific inhibitors and also in the fact that we can release them from the material gradually, having a prolonged effect. This is mainly due to the gradual natural degradation of the polymer. Additionally, it degrades to biocompatible 6-hydroxycaproic acid, which is recycled by human body.
Immune response of a cell is a cascade of biochemical processes. In this case, the JNK enzymes are links in the chain. Inhibitors bind to enzymes and block their work. Thus, suppressing one link, we turn off the entire subsequent reaction chain.
In this article, we present the research results on immune cells, isolated from human blood and cell lines. In the future, we will look for opportunities for in vivo research.
Eventually, our scaffolds could be used to recover damages of soft tissues and blood vessels. The polycaprolactone has all suitable mechanical properties. For instance, it can reduce the negative consequences after a heart attack and stroke, the researcher says.
Scaffolds from various materials are already being implemented into medical practice in developed countries, but it is too early to talk about their widespread application. However, it is only a matter of time, that is why scientists continue searching for the most effective materials and biologically active compounds. "
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ZME Science / November 4, 2019
AI scans your brain and draws what you see
This is an entire new level of mind reading.
Исследователи из Лаборатории нейроробототехники МФТИ и компании «Нейроботикс» с помощью электроэнцефалограммы (ЭЭГ) и нейросетей провели эксперимент по «чтению мыслей», довольно реалистично восстановив изображение того, что видели люди во время записи ЭЭГ.
Russian researchers have used a non-invasive technique that visualizes the brain activity of a person, recreating surprisingly accurate moving images of what our eyes actually see. The method could someday be employed in cognitive disorder treatment or post-stroke rehabilitation devices that are controlled by a patient’s thoughts.
This is not the first time that scientists have decoded people’s brain activity patterns to generate images. Such methods, however, typically rely on functional MRI or surgically implanted neurons, which can be invasive and cumbersome, thereby limiting the potential for everyday applications.
The new technique developed by researchers at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology and Russian corporation Neurobotics is much more versatile. It relies on electroencephalography, or EEG, which records brain waves via electrodes that are placed noninvasively on the scalp.
"The electroencephalogram is a collection of brain signals recorded from scalp. Researchers used to think that studying brain processes via EEG is like figuring out the internal structure of a steam engine by analyzing the smoke left behind by a steam train," explained paper co-author Grigory Rashkov, a junior researcher at MIPT and a programmer at Neurobotics. "We did not expect that it contains sufficient information to even partially reconstruct an image observed by a person. Yet it turned out to be quite possible."
During one experiment, healthy volunteers had to watch 20 minutes of 10-second YouTube video fragments. The videos were grouped into five categories: abstract shapes, waterfalls, human faces, moving mechanisms, and motorsports.
In the first phase of the experiment, the researchers showed that by analyzing the EEG data, they could distinguish between each video category.
For the second part, the researchers developed two neural networks (AI algorithms) and selected three random categories from the original five. One network was responsible for generating random category-specific images from "noise", whereas the other generated similar "noise" from the EEG data. The two networks then operated together to convert the EEG signal, literally the brain activity, into actual images that mimic what the test subjects were actually observing.
Finally, after the neural networks were trained, the test subjects were shown completely novel videos that they had never seen from the same categories. As they watched the videos, the recorded brain activity was fed into the neural networks. The generated images could be easily categorized with 90% accuracy.
"What’s more, we can use this as the basis for a brain-computer interface operating in real time. It’s fairly reassuring. Under present-day technology, the invasive neural interfaces envisioned by Elon Musk face the challenges of complex surgery and rapid deterioration due to natural processes - they oxidize and fail within several months. We hope we can eventually design more affordable neural interfaces that do not require implantation," Rashkov said.
The findings were reported in the preprint server bioRxiv.
© 2007-2019 ZME Science - Not exactly rocket science. All Rights Reserved.
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Popular Mechanics / Nov 4, 2019
New Kind of Concrete Cracks Much Less Than the Regular Stuff
The secret is in the mix.
Инженеры из Центра военных исследований Дальневосточного федерального университета создали пластичный бетон, который не трескается при механических воздействиях - при ударе он сжимается и пружинит. Такого эффекта удалось добиться за счет снижения количества цемента на 40%, вместо него были добавлены отходы производства - зола рисовой шелухи, отсев дробления известняка и кварцевого песка, что также позволило удешевить производство.
Russian scientists have developed a new, more flexible form of concrete that could mean stronger, safer buildings and structures around the world, reports New Atlas. The secret is in the mix, where the scientists replaced 40 percent of the cement binder with plentiful, eco-friendly materials that increase the "give" and make the concrete both more ductile and elastic.
All concrete is made by combining aggregate (the gravel or other solid materials) and cement (a powder saturated with water to form a paste). Cement seems like an everyday thing in the modern world, but its invention in ancient Rome paved the way for millennia of subsequent progress. The Romans created the earliest known concrete when they mixed batches of cement and then added gravel and volcanic ash to bulk it up.
Concrete is immeasurably useful, most of all when it’s poured around a frame or cage of the reinforcing steel beams known as rebar. Using steel reinforcement makes concrete not just stronger, but also somewhat more flexible. But there are major drawbacks to using steel-reinforced concrete, including simple human variance when concrete is poured around steel rebar frames. Any kind of moisture or foreign matter clinging to rebar’s nooks and crannies can contain bacteria and other agents that work to weaken the concrete over time. Once concrete has even tiny cracks, that’s where the trouble begins.
Postponing the "first crack" was mission number one for the scientists at the Military Studies Center at Far Eastern Federal University in Russia. They wanted to find a more elastic concrete mix, and according to New Atlas, the mix is indeed six to nine times more crack-resistant than traditional concrete.
Concrete has a major environmental cost, not just from the process of making cement, but in waste concrete that accumulates over time. In a Guardian feature earlier this year, experts recommended using less concrete in new projects. That might sound like pie-in-the-sky advice, but Far Eastern’s new concrete reduces cement by 40 percent and replaces it with mostly waste materials that we already generate. The new concrete is better for the environment and will likely be cheaper for builders.
What are these cement-alternative fillers? The scientists used rice husk cinder, limestone crushing waste, and silica sand. Silica is a wildly plentiful mineral whose crystal form is quartz and is the natural "sand" in sandstone. Beach or playground sand is composed of both silica sand and finely ground calcium-based particles from coral and other sea creatures.
Scientists have long investigated rice husk cinder, meanwhile, as an alternative or addition to coal-industry "fly ash," a byproduct with similar properties that helps to offset emissions. Rice husk ash is more elastic and may be feasible in higher percentages than fly ash. Limestone crushing waste is from quarries, where giant machines called crushers turn mined rock into gravel and other small aggregate. Recapturing quarry waste like limestone and marble dust may reduce environmental impact as well as increasing concrete’s tensile strength.
It isn’t clear if the concrete with 40 percent less cement is suited for large-scale construction. Builders already have many types of rebar to consider in different climates, because temperature and humidity play a part in how rebar and concrete age separately and together.
A more flex-friendly concrete could be a great alternative for bridge building, where the ability to bend but retain shape is a requirement, not just a nice benefit. The Russian scientists also cited its potential for bunkers and other secure military and government facilities.
© 2019 Hearst Magazine Media, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
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Stratfor / Nov 6, 2019
Russia's Arctic Dreams Remain on Ice
По мнению американской аналитической компании Stratfor, амбициозные планы России по экономическому развитию Арктики могут столкнуться с финансовыми и техническими проблемами. Государственные и частные предприятия не спешат инвестировать в развитие арктической инфраструктуры, а добыча полезных ископаемых в северных условиях требует специальных технологий, которыми Россия пока не располагает.
The Russian Arctic is warming, but the Kremlin's dreams for the region remain in the deep freeze. Since planting its flag on the seafloor at the North Pole in 2007, Moscow has reinforced its territorial claims in the Arctic by increasing its military presence and bolstering its icebreaker fleet. But Russia's progress in making use of the Arctic's mineral and hydrocarbon resources and unlocking the rest of the region's economic potential is stalling.
The Big Picture
Projecting itself as a "northern power," Russia has set ambitious goals for the economic development of the Arctic. But because of financial and technical constraints, Russia's Arctic development is likely to fall well short of its grand ambitions.
Apart from some large initial gains through the Yamal liquified natural gas project, the tremendous investments required to bring infrastructure to the Arctic have begun to lag projections as the government struggles to motivate state-owned and private corporations to go north. The lack of sufficient ports, railroads, electricity grids, airports and more in the Arctic has significantly increased the cost of individual projects at a time when the government is facing budgetary constraints and popular opposition to rising taxes. Moscow, accordingly, is putting the onus for developing Arctic infrastructure almost entirely on private and state-owned entities. Unsurprisingly, corporations have been reluctant to foot the bill for such large, upfront investments, meaning progress has become bogged down as the sides haggle over tax breaks or financial support. Ultimately, cost, feasibility and the like could well put paid to Russia's hopes of scoring an Arctic windfall.
Tapping the North's Energy Riches
According to the Kremlin, Moscow's Arctic infrastructure plans will require investments of over $200 billion between now and 2050; more crucially, around $87 billion of that would have to occur by 2024. Moscow, however, has earmarked only $14 billion for the plans over the entire period - a figure that by far trails spending ($400 billion) for projects like military modernization. (Officials in the Economy and Energy ministries have criticized the emphasis on the military, warning that the incentives for Arctic development were insufficient.)
One of Russia's main pursuits in the Arctic has been the development of oil and natural gas. Areas north of the Arctic Circle are believed to hold over 90 billion barrels of oil and more than 42 billion cubic meters of natural gas, about 80 percent of which lies in Russian-claimed territories. For Russia, the development of these resources is crucial. Many Russian oil and gas fields currently under production will head into decline starting next year, according to official predictions, driving urgency for greater development in the Arctic. Given that the oil and gas sector provides about 40 percent of government revenue, the Kremlin will be severely strapped for cash if Arctic development fails to get off the ground.
Russia has enjoyed some success in Arctic development, particularly when it comes to LNG production. The private company Novatek took the lead by gathering investors (including partners from China and Japan) and expanding the existing Yamal LNG plant, as well as LNG 2 and Ob LNG, the first of which is set to become operational in 2023. State-owned enterprises such as Rosneft and Gazprom, however, have been more reluctant to carry the cost of development in the Arctic. Those companies do not necessarily oppose the Kremlin's goals in the region, but they have hesitated to invest heavily in the Arctic without tax breaks or other incentives that could reduce the risk. Earlier this year, Rosneft CEO Igor Sechin asked Russian President Vladimir Putin for $40 billion in tax breaks to pursue the Kremlin's Arctic goals. The government, however, has countered, offering Rosneft and other companies postponed tax benefits.
Moscow is also tailoring some incentives for individual regional projects. At present, the government is considering providing some financing for the Vostok oil project (with a cost estimated at $156 billion, including support infrastructure) and tax breaks for production at the already active Vankor oil project, which officials will eventually incorporate into Vostok. The considerations suggest that Moscow could decide to offer incentives on a project-by-project basis in the future - although that will also entail long cycles of negotiations and planning before every new stage in Arctic development.
What's more, both Vostok and Vankor are located onshore, meaning progress in development is likely to slow even further when authorities turn their attention to offshore riches. In deep water, Russia faces not only financial concerns (naturally, the break-even costs offshore are higher) but also technological shortcomings. Russian producers will likely have to partner with Western oil companies that can provide the know-how and technology to operate in such harsh conditions, but the increasing geopolitical tensions between Russia and the West will impede collaboration. For one, while sanctions against Russia's oil and gas sector might not hurt Russia's existing production, they could pose a significant hurdle to sufficiently modernizing its energy sector to be able to fully tackle Arctic energy projects.
Will Russia's Ship Come In?
Beyond the energy sector, the government also views Arctic development as a broader move to boost the economy in Russia's remote regions. Through the development of supporting infrastructure and industry, the Arctic is expected to become a significant driver of economic growth and employment. But mirroring its slow start in exploiting the Arctic's hydrocarbon resources, shipping along the Northern Sea Route has yet to rise in line with Moscow's projections. Last year, 18 million metric tons of cargo traversed the Northern Sea Route - most of which was internal Russian traffic among Arctic destinations. Moscow wants to increase this to 80 million metric tons by 2024, but other oil and gas projects like Vostok must materialize at great speed if Russia is to meet this goal.
Activity on the Northern Sea Route has grown over 350 percent from 2013 to 2018, with much related solely to building projects like Novatek's LNG terminals. Accordingly, as oil and gas facilities come online, the volume of maritime traffic they generate stabilizes, meaning Moscow will require more construction and international transshipment along the North Sea Route if it is to fulfill its aims for shipping.
So while the Kremlin may have goals for the Arctic beyond the energy sector alone, its ambitions still depend almost entirely on energy projects to drum up basic infrastructure development and broader economic activity on the Northern Sea Route. Even disregarding far-reaching offshore projects, the immense financing requirements and political bargaining over state support will inhibit the development even of the easier-to-attain onshore projects. Russia's Arctic, in the end, will certainly experience increasing economic activity, albeit perhaps not at the rate that Moscow desires - or needs.
Copyright © 2019 Stratfor Enterprises, LLC. All rights reserved.
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The Telegraph / 6 November 2019
One-legged skeleton found under Russian dance floor is Napoleon's 'lost general', DNA tests confirm
More than 200 years after he died of his battlefield wounds in Russia, one of Napoleon Bonaparte’s favourite generals has been formally identified thanks to DNA tests on a one-legged skeleton found under a dance floor. His heirs are now calling for him to receive a state funeral in his native France.
Charles Étienne Gudin, whose name is inscribed on the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, died aged 44 on August 22, 1812, after being hit by a cannonball during Napoleon’s unsuccessful invasion of Russia. Gudin was personally known to and respected by Napoleon. A bust of his likeness resides in the Palace of Versailles, and a Paris street bears his name. After his death his heart was cut out and carried to Paris to be placed in a chapel in the French capital’s Père Lachaise cemetery but the precise location of the rest of his body was unknown.
Then in July, a team of French and Russian archaeologists said they unearthed what they believed to be Gudin’s missing remains during a dig in the Russian city of Smolensk, 250 miles west of Moscow. Records from the period indicate that Gudin was seriously wounded in the Battle of Valutino near Smolensk, close to the border with Belarus, in which 7,000 French perished. His leg was amputated and he died three days later from gangrene.
The search for his remains began in May, funded by a Franco-Russian group headed by Pierre Malinowski, a historian and former soldier with ties to the French far-right and support from the Kremlin. The team was confident that the skeleton they found belonged to Gudin but to dispel any doubt sent samples for genetic cross-analysis with DNA from the general's descendants.
"I came back with to France with a piece of femur and teeth," said Mr Malinowski. He handed them over to an expert in Marseille, southern France, who compared them with remains of Gudin’s brother and sister from the family crypt at Saint-Maurice-sur-Aveyron in the Loiret, central France. The brother had also been a general of Napoleon.
"The DNA fits 100 per cent," Mr Malinowski told France Bleu. "There is no longer any doubt." "This is the greatest day of my life. Napoleon was one of the last people to see him alive which is very important, and he’s the first general from the Napoleonic period that we have found.
"We were very lucky to find a skeleton after all the tragedies that Russian went through in 1812. And even more incredible, there was more usable DNA on (Gudin’s) remains that in the bones conserved in a dry place for the past 200 years." He said the remains would soon be returned to France.
Albéric d’Orléans, a direct heir of the general, hailed the news as historic. He called for a proper burial at the Invalides in Paris, the military complex housing the tomb of Napoleon and other great French military leaders. "This is the man who stood up to the Prussians during the Battle of Auerstaedt (in which Napoleon defeated Frederick William III), he deserves a national tribute", he said.
According to Mr Malinowski, President Vladimir Putin of Russia has taken a personal interest in the case and offered to fly the remains to France. Emmanuel Macron, the French president, was also aware of the discovery. "Both presidents are enthusiastic" he said, adding that he hoped for a joint ceremony in the general’s honour. "It will help to bring France and Russia closer together."
Gudin is said to have been one of Napoleon's favourite generals and the two men attended military school together.
The team in Smolensk first followed the memoirs of a subordinate of Gudin, Marshall Davout, who organised the funeral and described a mausoleum made of four cannon barrels pointing upward, said Nikolai Makarov, the director of the Russian Institute of Archaeology. When that trail dried up, they checked another theory by a witness of the funeral and found pieces of a wooden casket buried under an old dance floor in the city park. A preliminary report concluded that the skeleton belonged to a man who died aged 40-45.
Napoleon had hoped to defeat the Russian army at Valutino but it managed to escape and Russian Tsar Alexander refused to discuss peace.
"This battle could have been decisive if Napoleon hadn't underestimated the Russians," said Mr Malinowski. "Heavy losses in this battle showed Napoleon that he was going to go through hell in Russia."
The French leader's campaign ended in a disastrous retreat as Russians used scorched earth tactics and even ordered Moscow to be burnt to sap Napoleon's resources. Less than ten per cent of his forces survived the Russian invasion.
© Telegraph Media Group Limited 2019.
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Phys.Org / November 8th, 2019
An ancient boat was found near Samara
Samara Polytech scientists conducted a preliminary survey of a medieval ship.
Самарский государственный технический университет организовал несколько экспедиций для изучения обнаруженной на дне Волги старинной ладьи. Радиоуглеродный анализ фрагмента древесины, проведенный Институтом мониторинга климатических и экологических систем СО РАН, определил возраст объекта примерно в 600 лет.
An unusual object in the Volga River near the Holy Mother of God's Kazan monastery in the Vinnovka village was found by the monastery's workers. Scientists of the Samara Polytech helped identify the ancient boat by organizing several expeditions with the participation of professional divers and representatives of the scientific and production company "Ekran" (Moscow). Inspection of the discovered object lying under water at a 10-meter depth was carried out using special underwater ultrasound scanners and an underwater robot (glideron) developed at the Samara Polytech. The result struck the researchers: the size of the sunken boat is about 50 meters in length and 20 meters in width. Most of the sunken ship is in the sand, but the ultrasound images clearly show aft end and preserved frame timbers, and in the video you can see a large chain and old ropes.
During the dives, scientists took a piece of wood and a half-meter metal forged nail from the object. Radiocarbon analysis of a wooden boat particle was done in the laboratory of the Institute for Monitoring Climate and Ecological Systems of the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences (Tomsk). As a result of the study, the age of the object was established - 1415 year (±85 years). Even taking into account the error probability, the result of this investigation indicates that the ship was created and sunk in the Volga even before the era of Ivan the Terrible.
"If the dating obtained as a result of the radiocarbon analysis is correct, then this vessel belongs to the second half of the 14th - 15th centuries", comments Ekaterina Semenova, Doctor of Historical Sciences, Head of the Department of Sociology, Political Science and History of the Fatherland, Samara Polytech. Although the territory of the Volga region was not yet part of Russian statehood during this period, Slavic settlements were located along the riversides of the Volga, and the Volga itself was a navigable artery used by representatives of various states. There are many questions about the ownership and purpose of this ancient ship. The version that this vessel is associated with any of the Russian states (the formation of a centralized Russian state in many respects correlates with the era of the second half of the 15th - beginning of the 16th centuries, the period of the reign of Moscow Knyaz Ivan III) has a right to exist, but boat's grandiose sizes are impressive. Among the possible options, if the theory bases on the use of the Volga artery, it may be a vessel of Asian, Scandinavian or West European origin. According to the available data, it is difficult to judge whether it was used for trade or military purposes. It should be emphasized that for the accurate identification of the object and the answer to numerous questions that arise, a whole series of serious studies are required. However, it can already be said that a surviving vessel of similar size, comparable with a dating period earlier in the Middle Volga and, in particular, within the territory of the Samara Region, has not yet been found.
By the way, for the first time, the mention of a certain settlement - Samar - was found on the Volga map, compiled by the Venetian merchants Francesco and Dominico Picigano in 1367. The same settlement was marked on the map of the Italian traveler Fra Mauro in 1459.
A fragment of a metal nail was studied by different methods in the chemical laboratories of the Samara Polytech (X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy) and Samara University (atomic emission spectroscopy). The results of the two analyzes almost coincided, showing that the nail consists of 99.5% iron. According to scientists, this indicates the medieval age of the fragment, since more or less modern metals are alloying compounds.
"According to the first data, it was clear that this is an artifact consisting of iron. Corrosion penetrated the thickness of the product itself. There is another interesting detail: in the metal sample under study there are very few impurities - carbon, sulfur, phosphorus, the nail is almost pure iron with a concentration of 99.5%. This indicates a fairly perfect level of technology for the production of metal products of that time", says Andrei Pimerzin, Doctor of Chemistry, Professor, Head of the Department of Chemical Technology of Oil and Gas Processing. "In favor of the fact that this is most likely an old sample, it also says that there are no alloying elements in it, namely additives of chromium, nickel, molybdenum. But with a small amount of copper. In its pure form, iron is practically not used today. At least today, nails are not made from pure iron".
According to scientists, this boat is of historical and cultural value, in particular, this object will help clarify in what relations were the territories of the Middle Volga, Upper and Lower Volga, how trade was carried out, etc. The Samara boat is also unique due to its age. So, the Nizhny Novgorod boat, that was found several years ago in Vetluga, a shallow tributary of the Volga, is about 300-400 years. The Vytegorsk boat from Lake Onega dating back to the 17th and 18th centuries was considered to be the "dinosaur of Russian shipbuilding".
It is obvious that the development of the theme related to the Samara boat, which is the cultural code for Samara, will give a new impetus to the development of the territory of the Samara region, will unite not only Samara, but also Russian, foreign scholars, local historians. This object has every chance of becoming a "magnet" for Russian and foreign tourists. By the way, in world practice there is experience in raising and creating museums of ancient ships (for example, the museum of the 17th-century ship "Vasa" in Stockholm). It is likely that once we can see a real ancient boat in Samara, and not just a white-stone stele on the Volga embankment.
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Livemint / 10 Nov 2019
An inquiry into a post-death Buddhist meditative practice
- Seethalakshmi S., Rahul Nandan
В одном из крупнейших тибетских монастырей Ташилунпо ученые из МГУ и Института мозга человека имени Н.П.Бехтеревой РАН совместно с буддийскими учеными в течение двух недель изучали мозговую и физиологическую активность монахов, находящихся в состоянии глубокой медитации «тукдам». Исследование проводилось в рамках совместного научного проекта, начатого в 2018 г.
It’s a rainy morning in the picturesque Tashi Lhunpo Monastery in Karnataka’s Bylakuppe town, about 70km from Mysuru and home to one of the largest Tibetan settlements in India.
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Six Russian scientists are closely observing a Tibetan monk in deep meditative state. The scientists from Moscow State University and St Petersburg-based Institute of Human Brain are here to study thukdam, a post-death meditative state practised by highly realized Buddhist masters.
Buddhist scholars and Russian scientists have been working together for a little over a year to understand thukdam better, and last month, they spent a fortnight together investigating altered states of consciousness at the Talhun Russian Science Centre at Tashi Lhunpo Monastery.
Thukdam is meditative practice in which realized Tibetan Buddhist masters die in a consciously controlled manner. Though they are declared clinically dead, their bodies remain fresh for days or weeks without any signs of decomposition, putrefaction or skin discolouration. It is described as an invocation of the subtle consciousness. Thukdam is a Tibetan word with "thuk" meaning mind and "dam" standing for samadhi or the meditative state.
The team is looking into two aspects of thukdam. "The first is the scientific aspect to find out how they can stabilize and control the human mind with thukdam being the key factor," said professor Svyatoslav Medvedev, who is leading the delegation of scientists from Russia. Meditation is an altered state of mind and the scientists are studying the brains of monks who are in a deep meditative stage.
"We learnt from lamas of different monasteries that thukdam is not just a post-death meditative state. One can also achieve the same state of mind in one’s lifetime. So we are studying monks who are meditating on subtle consciousness or trying to invoke their subtle consciousness," said Medvedev, the founder and former director of NP Bekhtereva Institute of the Human Brain at the Russian Academy of Sciences in St Petersburg. The second aspect of their investigation is to understand the neurophysiological mechanism of meditation, or how the practice works in relation to the functioning of the nervous system.
"Right now, there are no answers to the phenomena of thukdam. It’s this mystery that the scientists are here to study. We Buddhists also want to know more about it," said Ngawang Norbu, head of Sera Jey Science Centre in Bylakuppe.
Medvedev first met the 14th Dalai Lama a decade ago and discussed working together. In 2018, a Russian delegation came to India to meet the Dalai Lama. "His Holiness talked to us about thukdam and said he was keen to know the neurophysiological mechanism of meditation. He asked me if I could carry out research on thukdam," he says.
Russia then invited a group of monks to the country in September to familiarize them with the nuts and bolts of the scientific research. The two-week trip was an eye-opener for the eight monks from the settlements of Bylakuppe and Mundgod. None of them had prior experience with this kind of research. They learnt to set up the EEG (electroencephalogram to measure electrical activity in the brain), figured out how brain signals work during meditation and understood the nuances of neurophysiology and the function of consciousness at the Institute of Human Brain.
For Tenzin Wangchuk, a monk in his late 20s, it was his first overseas trip after he came to Bylakuppe from Tibet when he was barely 10 years old.
"We went to Moscow and St Petersburg for pre-project training. We understood what exactly the Russian scientists would do when they are here," said the monk from Mundgod’s Drepung Loseling Monastery.
"The Russian philosophy of science is different from that of the West. They are holistic in their approach. We need to move away from the individualistic approach to solve the problems of the mind," said Lobsang Phuntok, a monk from the Sera Jey Monastery, who was also part of the group.
"Thukdam is a very sensitive research subject and we need to be absolutely precise in our findings," said Medvedev. The project will be carried out in two labs - one in Bylakuppe, the other in the Tibetan settlement of Mundgod near Hubballi in Uttara Kannada. The first lab in Tashi Lhunpo Monastery was inaugurated in September.
The Tashi Lhunpo Monastery, the traditional seat of the second most important spiritual leader of Tibet, the Panchen Lama, was founded in 1447 at Shigatse in Tibet by the first Dalai Lama, Gyalwa Gendun Drup. The Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1950 and the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) destroyed many of Tibet’s monastic institutions. In 1960, the Chinese Army dismantled the Tashi Lhunpo Monastery, and many precious scriptures and stupas were destroyed. In 1972, the Tashi Lhunpo Monastery was re-established in Bylakuppe under the patronage of the 14th Dalai Lama, and is now home to about 400 monks.
"We have been in conversation with the scientists from Russia for two years. Three monasteries in Bylakuppe - Tashi Lhunpo, Sera Jey and Sera Mey - and four in Mundgod are collaborating with the Russian scientists. This kind of collaboration will lead to better understanding of the human mind and help bridge the gap between Western and Buddhist psychology," said Zeekyab Tulku Rinpoche, abbot of the Tashi Lhunpo Monastery.
In the lab, a group of monks meditates on emptiness and subtle consciousness or contemplate different subjects to enter the deep meditative state, while the scientists hook them to the machines and study the signals in their brains.
"The research is expected to open the doors to precise understanding of thukdam. It is not a one-time research. We need to continuously observe and study what exactly happens during thukdam," said Telo Tulku Rinpoche, representative for His Holiness the Dalai Lama in Russia, Mongolia and The Commonwealth of Independent States.
PV magazine / November 13, 2019
Three steps to fast-charging potassium batteries
Сейчас самые распространенные аккумуляторы относятся к литий-ионному типу, но недостаток лития требует поиска альтернативы. В Сколтехе создали аккумулятор на основе натрия и калия - с высокой емкостью, мощностью и стабильностью.
Scientists in Russia led by the Skolkovo Institute of Technology in Moscow (Skoltech) have added another innovation to the already lengthy list of potential alternatives to lithium-ion batteries by demonstrating a potassium-ion battery they say combines the high storage capacity of a metal-ion device with the fast charging capability of a supercapacitor.
The researchers began by working with an organic polymer material containing fragments of hexaazatriphenylene. "Versatility is one of the key advantages of organic materials," said Skoltech Ph.D. student Roman Kapaev. "Their redox mechanisms are much less specific to the nature of the counter-ion, which makes it easier to find an alternative to lithium-ion batteries. With lithium prices going up, it makes sense to replace [the material] with … cheaper sodium or potassium that will never run out. As for inorganic materials, things are a lot more complicated."
The group found the material suitable for lithium, sodium and potassium battery chemistries and said it allowed for fast charging batteries which retained their capacity over thousands of cycles. However, according to a paper published in the Journal of Materials Chemistry A, the cathodes have a low operating potential in comparison to potassium, resulting in limited energy storage capacity.
Second cathode attempt
As a result, the group moved on to another organic cathode material, this one based on the dihydrophenazine polymer. "Aromatic polymer amines can make excellent high-voltage organic cathodes for metal-ion batteries," said Skoltech Ph.D. Philipp Obrezkov. "In our study, we used poly-N-phenyl-5,10-dihydrophenazine in the potassium battery cathode for the first time."
That led the group to develop a battery - described in a second paper, published in The Journal of Physical Chemistry Letters - which achieved specific energy of 593 Wh/kg, a figure Obrezkov claims is a record high value for all known potassium-ion battery cathodes.
The group then combined the cathode with potassium-sodium alloy applied on carbon paper, as an anode. With that combination they were able to create a battery which again offered strong energy capacity performance, losing only 11% after 10,000 cycles. The device, described in a third paper, in Chemical Communications, also demonstrated power of almost 100,000 W/kg, which the group claims is a level typically only seen with supercapacitors.
"We showed that electroactive organic materials can pave the way for a new generation of electrochemical energy storage devices combining the advantages of metal-ion batteries and supercapacitors," said group leader and Skoltech associate professor Pavel Troshin, "thus eliminating the need for costly transition metal compounds and lithium."
© PV MAGAZINE 2019.
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The Times / November 19, 2019
Russia makes progress in science subject rankings
More Russian universities join top 100 of subject tables but country falls short of achieving aims of excellence initiative.
Через шесть лет после начала российского проекта «5-100» пять российских университетов вошли в сотню лучших учебных заведений в предметном рейтинге Times Higher Education: МФТИ (физика, компьютерные науки), МГУ (физика, гуманитарные науки), Университет ИТМО (компьютерные науки), ВШЭ (экономика), Казанский федеральный университет (экономика). При этом в общем рейтинге ни один российский университет по-прежнему не продвинулся дальше второй сотни.
Five Russian universities have reached world top 100 positions in Times Higher Education’s latest series of subject rankings, suggesting that the country may slowly be getting closer towards realising the aims of its excellence initiative.
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The achievement was confirmed as THE released the final batch of its 11 global subject rankings for 2020.
Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology (MIPT) and Lomonosov Moscow State University both feature in the top 100 of the 2020 THE ranking for physical sciences, published today, at joint 45th and joint 81st positions respectively.
MIPT also joined the top 100 of the computer science ranking this year, alongside ITMO University, while the Higher School of Economics and Kazan Federal University made their debuts in the top 100 of the business and economics and education rankings respectively. Lomonosov Moscow State University also remained in the top 100 of the arts and humanities ranking.
The country’s rise comes six years after the official start of its Project 5-100 - a programme aimed at developing Russia’s universities to enable five institutions to reach the world top 100 by 2020. The five universities that have reached the top 100 in specific subject areas include four members of the project alongside Lomonosov Moscow State University, the national flagship institution that is not part of the scheme.
However, no Russian universities feature in the top 100 of the overall World University Rankings. Lomonosov Moscow State is the highest at joint 189th place.
Alongside the physical sciences ranking, THE's subject rankings for clinical, pre-clinical and health; life sciences; and psychology have also been updated for 2020.
The University of Cambridge tops the life sciences ranking for the first time under the current methodology (since 2011), knocking Harvard University down to second place.
Meanwhile, the University of Toronto has joined the top 10 of the clinical ranking, after climbing seven places to sixth, while the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor and University of British Columbia join the top 10 of the psychology ranking in eighth and 10th place respectively.
The four subject rankings are based on the same metrics as the overall THE World University Rankings, but the weightings are different.
Down To Earth / 20 November 2019
Are Siberian migratory birds increasingly falling prey to India’s power lines?
A joint study by Russian and Indian scientists on two ospreys shows that this could indeed be the case.
Совместное исследование российских и индийских ученых показало, что птицы, улетающие на зиму из Сибири и Северной Евразии в Индию, могут стать там жертвами плотной сети ветряных электростанций и линий электропередач. Столкновения с ветряками и поражение током уже привели на грань исчезновения один из местных видов - индийскую большую дрофу.
Migratory birds from Siberia and northern Eurasia could be falling prey to power lines and turbines in India, a joint study undertaken by Russian and Indian scientists has shown.
Russian raptor (birds of prey) researchers Igor Karyakin, Elena Shikalova, Urmas Sellis and Gunnar Sein along with Nirav Bhatt and Dharmendra Khandal from India monitored a pair of adult ospreys that migrated from Russia to India, to come to the conclusion.
The ospreys were satellite tagged in Russia’s Sayano-Shushensky State Nature Reserve, located near the border with Mongolia. The male was named ‘Serzhik’ and the female, ‘Usina’. Both birds came to India this year to pass the harsh winter of their homeland. Ospreys are diurnal, fish-eating birds of prey with a cosmopolitan range. These raptors bond for life and this pair, like others of their kind, reared their brood before starting their long migration.
The goal of satellite tagging these birds was to discover the reason for their precipitous decline in the Altai-Sayan region - one of the most protected parts of Russia.
Scientists who had met at the Second International Scientific and Practical Conference Eagles of the Pale-arctic: Study and Conservation, suspected that the problem was to be found in the winter migrations of the species.
The satellite tagging revealed that both birds had independently travelled about 300-400 kilometres (km) per day for 15 days, approximately covering 5,000 km to reach their wintering ground. The female osprey, Usina, halted near Udaipur in Rajasthan and is still there, confined to an area where there are a few lakes.
Bhatt, along with Khandal, were in touch with the Russian scientists and were coordinating the movements of the birds. Khandal visited the site near Udaipur and found Usina to be safe. He also photographed the bird, and found the satellite transmitter still intact. However, Serzhik met with a tragic fate. He went further south and reached Madhya Pradesh where he stayed for about 15 days. He then travelled even further south to Karnataka near the town of Ilkal and mysteriously died there.
Last week, Karyakin and Nikolenko personally visited the area to understand the reason for the death and found that the area had too many windmills and the bird fell into the turbine turbulence zone of the wind turbine, was shell-shocked and could not continue the flight, although it remained alive. He rose from the ground and sat on the support of the power transmission line, where he was killed by electric shock. This detail they recorded because of the satellite tag. The carcass was missing and could have been taken away and eaten by feral dogs, but its feathers were found under an electric pole which was unsafe for birds. The cause of death is assumed to be collision or electrocution.
Infrastructure like wind mills and power lines in India are undoubtedly an unmitigated menace that kill a large number of local as well as migrants. The plight of the critically endangered Great Indian Bustard in Rajasthan because of collisions with power lines is well-known.
The Russian and Indian scientists now suspect that several Siberian birds that flew to India did not return because they went to China or India, where they collided with such infrastructure. Only those Siberian raptors that migrate to the Middle East and Pakistan where wind power is poorly developed and there are fewer power lines, appear to survive, and return. Karyakin even reported that when he was looking for a tracker, he saw a flock of starlings flying into a turbine and at least 20 fell to the ground.
Coming on the heels of the Sambhar tragedy, this study shows that conditions for avifauna in India are getting more and more perilous.
© Copyright Down To Earth 2019. All rights reserved.
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Deutsche Welle / 21.11.2019
Moscow's new rules complicate German-Russian academic cooperation
Научные учреждения Германии и России сотрудничают почти по 300 проектам - пока, по крайней мере. Ведущие немецкие ученые заявили, что они встревожены новыми российскими правилами и ограничениями сотрудничества с иностранными учеными.
There is a rumbling in the German academic world as concern grows over the newest Russian guidelines for cooperation with foreign researchers.
"We are greatly concerned by the Russian Federation's new dictate strictly outlining rules for cooperating with foreign academics," read an open letter penned by four education trade associations - three German and one British - published in early October.
The groups warned of a threat to international cooperation and spoke of "concern and resentment" within the scientific community over the Russian rules. Jens Strackeljan, president of the State Rectors' Conference of Saxony-Anhalt, was quoted by the German daily Mitteldeutsche Zeitung as saying, "Scientific co-operation cannot survive under such rules."
According to data from the German Rectors' Conference (HRK), which informs rectors at the country's colleges and universities, there are currently some 290 cooperative projects underway between German and Russian institutions.
'Limiting scientific freedom'
Dieter Lenzen, president of the University of Hamburg, said Moscow "intends to limit the scientific freedom of Russian colleagues and monitor and control their communications."
"Such changes to global guidelines governing exchange among scientists is unacceptable," Lenzen wrote in a letter DW has seen to scientists at his university.
Bring a copy of your passport but leave your cellphone at home
Those concerns were brought on by a dictate released by the Russian Ministry of Sciences in February. Among other stipulations on visiting academics, it dictates that the "reception of foreigners" is to "take place in special rooms dedicated to that purpose" located in department administrative buildings.
The ministry also demanded it receive detailed information on all such meetings and copies of foreign scientists' passport five days before any meetings take place. The rules also call for foreign scientists to be accompanied at all times, and "at least two Russian representatives" familiar with the topic of discussion must be present at every meeting.
There are even rules regulating the use of "technical tools for modifying and storing data," which in addition to computers, calculators, dictation devices and mobile telephones even includes watches and cameras. All such items are to remain off-site.
Peter-Andre Alt, president of the HRK, said on Wednesday in Berlin that the strict new rules were "an attack on scientific freedom" and were "clearly designed as an attack on the free exchange of ideas."
Germany's Federal Research Ministry (BMBF) said it is aware of the situation.
"We are following developments closely and have conveyed concerns to Russian partners at every level," a spokesman told DW.
Last December, German Education Minister Anja Karliczek of Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union traveled to Moscow to sign a lauded "German-Russian roadmap for co-operation in education, science, research and innovation."
Currently, the two countries are engaged in a 2018-2020 academic and scientific co-operation, which the German side has often touted in the press.
Fabian Burkhardt, a Russia expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) who recently worked as a political science researcher at a Moscow university, told DW that Russia's new guidelines were a "strain on cooperation," adding that scientific freedom in Russia "is increasingly limited."
'Contradictory' Russian academic policy
According to Burkhardt, exchange in the social sciences and the humanities is already tricky, though he said cooperation in the natural sciences seems more promising. Ultimately, Burkhardt added, Russia's academic policies are "totally contradictory."
He said Russia initiated a 2018-2024 national project designed to internationalize the Russian sciences and make the country more attractive to international scientists, but then at the same time established exceedingly high bureaucratic hurdles.
Dieter Lenzen of Hamburg University said the guidelines "are not something that can be applied generally, but which must be determined on a case-by-case basis." He asked scientists at his university to report any abnormalities they notice, saying the university would evaluate such complaints at the "appropriate time."
© 2019 Deutsche Welle.
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Popular Mechanics / Nov 25, 2019
Russians Build Device That Imitates Biological Memory
It's a "memristor": part memory cell, part resistor.
Физики из МФТИ создали устройство, имитирующее человеческую память - мемристор (memory + resistor) второго поколения на базе оксида гафния. Мемристор имитирует такое качество человеческого мозга, как пластичность - запоминает новую информацию и постепенно забывает данные, к которым давно не обращались.
Researchers in Moscow have made advances to a device called a memristor, building one that works like a synapse in the human brain. "Memristor" means both memory and resistor, a term coined in 1971 and realized in some form beginning in 2008. The new "second generation" memristor is able to eventually forget data that isn’t accessed often enough, which mimics how human synapses work and the quality of the brain known as plasticity.
The study and design of memristors is usually linked with the subject of neurocomputers, a blanket term for both digital computers that imitate human brains and hypothetical machines made of human neural cells. Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation’s positronic brain, an idea coined by Isaac Asimov, is a fictitious kind of neurocomputer. The idea with advanced memristors is to imitate the way that while a utilized human brain cell stays fully functional in a healthy brain, underused or unused brain cell will deteriorate.
The Russian researchers sought to correct a fundamental flaw in how other second-generation memristors were working: Because of normal mechanical wear and tear, the memristors were breaking down over time. In one sense, this mimics forgetfulness with human age. But that forgetfulness doesn’t permeate the entire human brain, and researchers couldn’t study the idea of modeling brain plasticity without a more robust device to begin with.
To address this, the research team tossed out an existing form of memristor that used current traveling over a microscopic "bridge" and replaced it with a magnetized technology made from an alloy called hafnium oxide. This powdery compound is an insulator used most famously by Intel starting in 2007 as a replacement for silicon dioxide when making gates - micro-circuitry that uses insulation to direct logic within microchips.
Hafnium is a heat-tolerant metallic element used to make welding torches or nuclear rods. In a pure or alloy form it’s a conductor, but when combined with oxygen to make hafnium oxide, it’s a heat-tolerant insulator instead. But in insulator format, it still has metallic properties, including that it holds a kind of magnetic charge that the researchers in Moscow capitalized on when making their memristor.
The ferroelectric - meaning holding a charge similar to how iron holds a charge - hafnium oxide allows the memristor to function. "The implemented ferroelectric second-order memristor exhibits various synaptic functionalities," the team’s abstract says. The scientists’ design uses the somewhat bumpy and leaky junction between silicon parts and hafnium-based parts as their mechanism for the manufactured "synapse" to forget things. Hafnium’s magnetic qualities make it ideal to gauge "remembering" on an incremental scale over time.
Choosing hafnium has other advantages, too. Because it’s already in demand for existing manufacturing and studied closely by many researchers, hafnium oxide is plentiful and cheaper than if scientists were to begin at square one and develop a brand new material. These researchers have also used access to hafnium oxide as a way to pursue a new mechanism for future neurocomputers of all kinds - not just to directly mimic and study the human memory but to, just as an example, give robots a motivating fear of their own mortality.
© 2019 Hearst Magazine Media, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
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Phys.Org / November 26, 2019
Scientists unravel the mystery of volcanic eruptions
Изучив образцы вулканических пород с помощью поликапиллярной оптики и синхротронного излучения, российские (НИЯУ МИФИ) и итальянские (Национальный институт ядерной физики) ученые смогли заглянуть в прошлое, создав трехмерную модель извержения на Флегрейских полях в 1538 году, известного как «взрыв Монте-Нуово».
Russian and Italian scientists have recently come closer to understanding volcanic eruptions by studying Monte Nuovo near Naples as a basis. Lava, the molten rock that forms and then solidifies on the Earth's surface, contains information that can not only reveal the causes of eruptions, but also unravel the mysteries of the planet's past and future.
The study of Italian volcanoes has advanced thanks to the new physical methods of Professor Sultan Dabagov's laboratory at MEPhI and INFN (National Institute of Nuclear Physics in Italy). The latest advances in physics were used in the research, which has allowed scientists to obtain the information "recorded" in the remains of an eruption.
"Our work is a detailed study of the active phase in the planet's life, which manifests itself in the form of volcanic eruptions. Eruptions are complex phenomena, and finding the correlations between their many variables is a step toward understanding and prediction. We used powerful sources of X-ray radiation capable of penetrating deep into the studied samples without destroying them," Sultan Dabagov, the research director, professor at the Institute of Nanotechnology in Electronics, Spintronics and Photonics at MEPhI, told Sputnik.
According to the scientist, in the first stage, they studied volcanic samples using multi-capillary optics based on X-rays. Then, to confirm the results, they examined the samples using more powerful synchrotron radiation. This made it possible to obtain X-rays and tomograms of the samples, recreate the internal features of various rocks and obtain high-resolution three-dimensional models.
The researchers believe that analyzing these models in comparison to samples of other eruptions will lead to conclusions about historically known eruptions and the eruptions of active and passive volcanoes.
"The data obtained using computed tomography and synchrotron radiation can be integrated into the general environment of feature-finding methods used in geology. We can better understand the impact of micro- and nanoporosity of the studied rocks on their permeability in order to answer many important questions on the formation and the future development of the planet," Sultan Dabagov said.
The work of the Russian and Italian scientists is aimed at creating a tool that allows for detailed tomographic analysis in a lab using a low-power X-ray tube. This is possible with multi-capillary optics.
The new tool will allow for the continuous study of volcanic samples since it is smaller and cheaper than synchrotron sources (this will help equip almost any geological research center). According to experts, the use of multi-capillary optics with small-sized sources and radiation detectors can form the basis for creating compact portable devices for analyzing various rocks on the ground, without moving samples.
© Phys.org 2003-2019 powered by Science X Network.
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The Barents Observer / November 26, 2019
Marine researchers find a dramatic ecosystem shift in Russian Arctic waters
Species that previously were non-existent in Russia's remote and icy Arctic waters are now found in big numbers.
В ходе трансарктической экспедиции, организованной Всероссийским НИИ рыбного хозяйства и океанографии (июль-октябрь этого года), ученые отметили существенные сдвиги в экосистеме. Изменение климата вызвало смещение границ арктических, тихоокеанских и атлантических водных масс, в результате чего перераспределились места обитания многих водных организмов.
The researchers that were on board the «Professor Levanidov» on the recent trans-arctic expedition have remarkable stories to tell.
Among the discoveries made was halibut on more than 200 meter depths in the Laptev Sea and snow crab in the northeastern parts of the East Siberian Sea and Chukchi Sea. They also found Alaska pollock in the waters of the Chukchi Sea and large numbers of big and mature polar cod in the Kara Sea.
The latter fish is more or less eradicated from the Barents Sea where other southern species have taken its place.
It is the massive influx of Atlantic waters in 2019 that has spurred the spreading of the new species to the region, research institute VNIRO informs. All the species mentioned traditionally belong to other far away waters and have migrated to the remote area in the course of the last few years.
«The climate changes of the past decade have swept away the borders between Arctic, Atlantic and Pacific water masses, including the respective characteristics of these waters, and lead to the shift in marine life in the oceans», the researchers say about their conclusions.
The «Professor Levanidov» in July set out from Vladivostok on Russia’s far eastern coast and on 2nd October arrived in Murmansk. The research ship owned and managed by VNIRO underway conducted unique ecosystem studies, including of local biological resources, ecosystems, feed basis, as well as climatic and hydrographic conditions.
According to institute Director Kirill Kolonchin, the trans-arctic expedition is the first ever of its kind for Russian marine and fisheries research.
The marine resources identified during the expedition is likely to soon lead to the start of commercial fisheries in the area.
«Already now we can confirm that the data obtained in the course of the research expeditions in the northern water allow us to significantly increase prognosis for catch resources and consequently strengthen the position of Russia when it comes to Arctic bioresource management under the International Agreement to Prevent Unregulated High Seas Fisheries in the Central Arctic Ocean,» Kolonchin and his institute says in a comment.
Following this year’s expedition, the «Professor Levanidov» is believed to remain in Murmansk and join the regional fleet of fisheries research vessels. Over several years, the marine researchers in Murmansk have been in dire need of new ships. In 2018, the Russians failed to take full part in a joint expedition with Norwegian colleagues when their 35 year old vessel «Vilnyus» broke down and had to be docked.
© 2002-2019. The Independent Barents Observer AS.
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Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists / November 27, 2019
What happened after an explosion at a Russian disease research lab called VECTOR?
Случившиеся в сентябре взрыв и пожар в Государственном научном центре вирусологии и биотехнологии «Вектор» вызвали широкий резонанс по всему миру, поскольку «Вектор», помимо всего прочего, является одним из двух хранилищ вируса натуральной оспы. Журнал «Бюллетень ученых-атомщиков», освещающий вопросы международной безопасности, анализирует отражение инцидента в СМИ, а также способы контроля подобных лабораторий международной общественностью и Всемирной организацией здравоохранения. Несмотря на наличие надежных механизмов решения проблем безопасности населения, есть аспекты, которые можно улучшить. Например, ВОЗ должна узнавать о таких случаях из первых рук - от соответствующего учреждения, а не через средства массовой информации, как в случае в «Вектором».
At a huge Soviet-era virology campus in Siberia called VECTOR, a sudden, unexpected explosion in September blew out the windows and set parts of a building ablaze. Around the world, people sat up and took notice. Global public health and security officials were concerned the explosion might have affected labs holding dangerous viruses. Biosecurity experts questioned whether it was a deliberate attack, and international security analysts and biodefense experts deliberated how to read the situation - acutely aware that biosafety breaches in a similar facility 40 years ago had caused a large and deadly anthrax outbreak that eventually exposed the Soviet Union’s prohibited biowarfare activities.
From media reports on the explosion, it was unclear exactly which parts of VECTOR, and which labs, had been affected by the explosion and fire. Of particular concern was the facility housing the unique smallpox-causing variola virus, one of just two such repositories in the world, both routinely monitored by the World Health Organization. Following the media reports, VECTOR management responded to queries from the World Health Organization with reassurance that the smallpox repository had not been affected, according to an organization spokesperson. From the organization’s perspective, there was no need to follow up with a visit or ad hoc inspection.
The World Health Organization-led international inspection team last visited VECTOR in February 2019, and while the report from the inspection is still in review, previous inspection reports have found that VECTOR meets international standards of biosafety and biosecurity for smallpox research. The unit visits VECTOR and its US counterpart, the smallpox repository at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, every other year.
Yet while the World Health Organization was reassured by the response from VECTOR officials, others still harbored concerns.
A little more than a month earlier, an explosion at a Russian military test site led US intelligence officials to suspect Russia had been experimenting with a nuclear-powered cruise missile. The explanations from governmental authorities about what happened and whether there was or wasn’t any increased level of radiation changed rapidly in the aftermath of the so-called Nenoksa incident. Given that the World Health Organization ended up concluding the smallpox repository was intact, and VECTOR did publish a brief report on its website on the day of the incident, officials at VECTOR might have benefited by taking pains to be as transparent as possible. Telling the health body about the explosion directly instead of letting it learn about the accident through media reports might have been a start. Given VECTOR’s past, it should have been.
An offensive history. VECTOR was once the center of the Soviet biological warfare effort’s virology work, and home to many of the world’s leading experts in weaponizing viruses. It didn’t advertise this fact, though. The Soviet Union had signed on to the international treaty prohibiting biological weapons, the Biological Weapons Convention, which entered into force in 1975. VECTOR’s public cover story was that it was developing biological pesticides for use in agriculture. In fact, only a very small core of people knew that VECTOR’s classified mission was to research, develop, and lab-test viruses to arm biological weapons. In their seminal book The Soviet Biological Weapons Program, Milton Leitenberg and Ray Zilinskas estimated that by the time the Soviet Union collapsed in 1990, VECTOR had the capacity to produce two tons of weaponized variola virus a year.
In the 1990s, there were significant efforts by the international community, spearheaded by the United States, to decommission the infrastructure of the Soviet biological warfare program, and to redirect former weapons scientists into research for peaceful purposes. VECTOR became one of the first institutes to receive foreign grant money.
Jens Kuhn, a German virologist who was part of a Pentagon-sponsored program that sent young scientists to work in former bioweapons labs, was the first Western scientist through the door at VECTOR in July 2001. Getting in was anything but easy, but once inside he found that contrary to fears he had heard expressed in the West, the high-containment units operated both safely and securely. "The Russians don’t want to kill themselves any more than Western scientists," Kuhn is quoted as saying in a Nature news story. Safety problems resulted primarily from limited resources, and not from lack of experience in safely and securely handling pathogens. In recounting his time at VECTOR, Kuhn spoke of stumbling blindly in the darkroom while holding biological samples because the red light was missing. Colleagues would remove his discarded rubber gloves and pipette tips from the bin to reuse them. It was not, therefore, that VECTOR scientists were at greater risk of becoming infected with pathogens, but rather that they were at greater risk of suffering from common accidents.
Things had clearly changed by the time of the 2009 World Health Organization smallpox inspection report, at least in the parts of VECTOR benefiting from investments in biological threat reduction. The 2009 report notes freshly painted walls and ceilings, and commends the state of the floors in the maximum containment lab. The 2012 report goes on to observe a high standard of surface finishes in the effluent treatment room and improvements to the vivarium since the last inspection visit. The 2016 report notes that "since the last inspection, several pieces of repair and replacement work had taken place," there is "continual modernization," and "the comprehensive maintenance program and the condition of the facility of VECTOR are commendable." A newly renovated isolation hospital is also mentioned, to accommodate any VECTOR personnel conducting work with high-threat pathogens needing quarantine and treatment.
This pattern of upgrades, repairs and renovations at VECTOR lends some credibility to the claim in the present-day explosion story that the room where the explosion occurred was undergoing renovation. Those more skeptical would point out that, while that may be true, Russian officials began rejecting financial assistance through biological threat reduction programs in 2012, and Russia formally withdrew participation altogether in 2015. The renovations, particularly the extent of the more recent ones, might therefore be signaling new sources of funding flowing into VECTOR, and this at a time when military interest and investment in biology is increasing. While it is important to retain a critical stance, it is equally important not to jump to conclusions. The Biological Weapons Convention prohibits the development of biological weapons, but it permits activities for peaceful and defensive purposes.
To reassure others of the legitimacy of these activities, the countries that make up the bioweapons convention regularly exchange information about them. Russia participates in these confidence-building measures and declares biodefense activities at the Sergiev Posad, Kirov, and Ekaterinburg facilities, just as the United States does for its biodefense activities at Fort Detrick, Dugway, Plum Island, Edgewood, Livermore, Los Alamos, and so on. In addition to its biodefense activities, Russia also declares activities at facilities that have high-containment labs or that specialize in permitted activities directly related to the bioweapons treaty. VECTOR is the only listed facility with maximum containment labs, or biosafety-level-4 labs. Yet, while VECTOR’s 15,500 square feet of such specialized lab space is significantly greater than what most countries declare, it pales in comparison to the 80,072 square feet declared by the United States. Facilities, whether in poor condition or newly renovated, do not in and of themselves indicate anything suspicious.
Were reactions to the VECTOR explosion overblown? Today, research at VECTOR is focused on studying the properties of highly contagious pathogens like HIV, Marburg, Ebola, influenza, and measles, and on developing vaccines and antiviral treatments against infections, including those resulting from genetically engineered viruses. There is also research to detect and diagnose pathogens. After the explosion, there were concerns that even if the smallpox repository building had not been impacted, labs working on any of these other agents could have been affected. Could any highly contagious pathogens have been accidentally released into the environment by the explosion, potentially setting off an infectious disease epidemic?
The global system for outbreak alerts is managed through an intricate web of national focal points, regional offices and the 24/7/365 surveillance center at the World Health Organization in Geneva. An international legal framework (the International Health Regulations) obligates countries to notify the World Health Organization of events constituting a public health risk. In the case of the VECTOR explosion, where, as far as we know, no staff were infected and there were no signs of a disease outbreak to suggest there might be a public health risk, the incident would not require formal notification. Informal communications are always encouraged, however, and, according to another source, once prompted, Russian officials did also communicate through more formal channels following the incident at VECTOR to reassure the international public health community.
The explosion had occurred in a decontamination room where staff change into and out of the personal protective gear worn in high containment labs. The area was being renovated at the time of the incident and there were no biohazardous substances in the room. While the windows had been blown out, there was no structural damage to the building itself. One contractor had been taken to hospital with severe burns and was in intensive care, but there were no public health risks stemming from the explosion.
But an editorial article in Global Biosecurity published within four days of the incident raised the alarm over what could have happened at VECTOR. The article is speculative and draws on worst-case assumptions, but still provides what appears to be precise and scientific data to back up its claim that the explosion could have resulted in the propagation of viral aerosols leading to a global epidemic. The article’s publication, occurring as it did so shortly after the incident itself, and without the authors first having ascertained the facts on the ground or sought the usual peer review, suggests some degree of opportunism. A researcher or journal’s credentials can obscure hotly contested science in the eyes of the public - and the article in Biosecurity and recent pieces in other publications serve to dangerously, some might say recklessly, erode trust in the international institutions and mechanisms in place to safeguard global health and security.
Follow-up. A month after the VECTOR incident, on Oct. 16, 2019, the Russian media returned to the story. A lawsuit had been brought against the contractor who was renovating the decontamination room. The worker who had been taken to hospital turned out to have burns to 45 percent of his body surface and he had suffered serious harm to health. The contractor was being sued for negligence and breach of health-and-safety-at-work rules.
A formal investigation into the incident is ongoing.
While solid international reporting mechanisms are in place to deal with international health and security concerns arising from such incidents as the VECTOR explosion, clearly, there are aspects that can be improved. The World Health Organization should learn about such incidences first-hand from the institution involved, rather than through the media, for example.
And the international community could make changes in how the World Health Organization monitors labs like VECTOR. The regular meetings of the World Health Organization Advisory Committee on Variola Virus Research, for example, can be used as a forum for presenting near-misses or tangentially relevant incidents to the 18-member smallpox expert committee, rather than waiting for follow-ups during the organization’s biennial inspections. Additionally, Russia could report more details about its activities in the confidence-building measures of the Biological Weapons Convention; and the measures could be revised to provide better insight into the intentions behind the activities. Members of the convention could, in general, make better use of the informal consultation procedures built into the convention to initiate conversations about ‘gray zone’ biodefense projects. And the International Health Regulations could introduce regular reviews to ensure they adapt to shifts in science, technology, and politics.
The international community does not yet know with any certainty what really happened at VECTOR that day. If it really was an accidental gas explosion with no resulting health or security risks, the situation seems to have been handled appropriately. But given Russia’s history of covering up biological warfare research and secrecy around major accidents, national and local officials needed to show even more transparency than they did.
And who knows, in 20 years’ time, we might even find out what happened at VECTOR from an HBO series, as one local resident near the VECTOR site tweeted, referring to the popular show about the Chernobyl disaster.
Copyright © 2019 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. All rights reserved.
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Chinadialogue / 27.11.2019
Land of the Big Cats: China and Russia collaborate in comeback
Leopards and tigers are roaming far eastern wilderness again thanks to a historic China-Russia collaboration, paving the way for a transnational park.
Россия и Китай обсуждают создание транснационального природного заповедника. Сотрудничество двух стран в сфере сохранения исчезающих популяций амурских тигров и дальневосточных леопардов началось еще в 1998 году, после чего по обе стороны границы были созданы два национальных парка - приморский «Земля леопарда» и китайский Северо-Восточный. Разумеется, животные свободно перемещаются через границу, что отрицательно влияет на достоверность собираемых данных. Транснациональный парк и совместный мониторинг позволят получить более точную картину.
In 2000, the Amur leopard was hurtling to extinction. There were only about 30 left in Russia, and just two in China.
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Today, the picture is more hopeful. Though it remains the world's rarest big cat, there are now close to 90 living across both countries.
Siberian tigers, who have also been roaming the Russia-China border since before those nations existed, have seen a similarly impressive recovery. In the 1940s, there were as few as 40 still alive. Now there are as many as 540.
The remarkable comeback is largely due to shared work between China and Russia, cemented in February when the park administrations on both sides of the border signed a memorandum of understanding for further cooperation.
This month they are meeting again in Vladivostok to create a work plan, and the details of an unprecedented trans-boundary nature reserve will likely emerge. The area being discussed will provide protected habitat for those leopards and tigers now wandering the vast wilderness in Russia’s far east and China’s north-east.
How did the collaboration begin?
Cooperation on big cats between the two nations began two decades ago. In 1998, the Forestry Department of China’s north-eastern province of Jilin invited Russian biologists to conduct a survey of tigers remaining in its forests. The scientists walked the border together and a partnership was born.
"We did find some tracks. They appeared to be all males, which meant there were probably no breeding females in the area and in all likelihood these were animals just dispersing across from Russia," said Dr Dale Miquelle, an American tiger expert and director of the Russia program for the Wildlife Conservation Society who helped instigate the original survey.
Miquelle recognised that the hunting snares they found were killing the tigers’ prey, making it impossible to support a full population even though the forest itself was healthy. He knew that if the Chinese could minimise human influence in the area and increase prey populations, the tigers would spread in numbers from Russia and establish home ranges in China.
How did the ‘Land of the Big Cats’ evolve?
In 2001, Jilin province established the Hunchun National Nature Reserve, a sliver of protected land running along the border with Russia and south to the small spit of Chinese territory that borders North Korea to the west and Russia to the east. Tiger numbers gradually rose, increasing 15% between 2005 and 2015.
Ten years after the reserve was founded, Dr Ge Jianping, then vice president of Beijing Normal University, and a team of researchers started monitoring tigers in earnest, setting up cameras and looking for each animal’s unique stripe pattern in the images they caught.
Using this data and the access to Chinese policymaking that researchers like Miquelle lacked, Ge was able to advance a proposal for a national park to replace the existing reserve. The new 14,600 km2 park, stretching 60% further than Yellowstone Park, was established in 2017 as a pilot to be incorporated into a new national park system in 2020.
Support for tiger and leopard conservation was burgeoning on the Russian side too. According to Yury Darman, Russia created a system of protected areas that together covered the majority of the leopard range, thanks in part to support from Sergey Ivanov, the former chief of staff of Vladimir Putin. In 2012, these were merged to form the Land of the Leopard National Park, which Darman is deputy director of. That large park abuts the border with Jilin and nearly reaches Amur Bay to the east. Between 2000 and 2018, the leopard population tripled, Darman told China Dialogue.
Even with Ge’s monitoring in place and national parks established on both sides of the border, however, it was difficult for biologists to get an accurate picture of the leopard and tiger populations, their behaviours and needs. To make things more difficult, individual animals frequently cross the border. "Tigers don’t have passports" said Liu Peiqi, director of the Amur-Heilongjiang Ecoregion for the WWF.
Last year, following years of trust building and an agreement by their governments, Russian and Chinese researchers shared their monitoring data for the first time, resulting in an unprecedented survey of the transboundary leopard population, and the first reliable global population count.
The consolidation of the partnership between the two countries is partly due to a closer relationship between the leaders. At a meeting in Moscow in June this year, presidents Xi and Putin signed a joint declaration that included reference to creating a transboundary park to protect Amur leopards and Siberian tigers, joint monitoring, and establishing nature corridors on the border.
The park, "Land of the Big Cats," would combine China’s Northeast Tiger and Leopard National Park with Russia’s Land of the Leopard National Park and Kedrovaya Pad Nature Reserve. Putin has already ordered the preparation of the paperwork on the Russian side, and Darman expects China to announce similar moves soon, possibly at the UN Convention on Biodiversity summit in Kunming next year.
How might human-tiger conflicts be resolved?
Despite the cooperation with Russia, China still faces significant challenges in its conservation efforts. Wang Aimin, China director of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), said that important management decisions have been slowed down because of confusion over staffing roles within the national park, the result of several smaller protected areas being rolled into one. He is particularly concerned about human-tiger interaction.
Unlike on the largely uninhabited Russian side of the border, around 100,000 people live in the region surrounding the Chinese national park. Many are cattle ranchers, and they typically leave their animals to graze on their own, making them vulnerable to tigers and disturbing the cats’ natural hunting patterns. Based on Russian conservation experience, WCS has suggested creating strict grazing areas for the remaining villages to protect both cattle and tigers and maintaining human-free areas to act as a cradle for the tiger population. The park is also considering relocating several villages.
For now, however, many farmers are being required to keep their cattle inside while a zoning plan due to be released a couple months ago continues to be hashed out. This means crippling financial burdens for the ranchers. What the solution will be, and when it will be implemented, remains to be seen.
There have been discussions about banning cattle from the park entirely, but Wang cautions against that: "There are so many local people relying on that as a big part of their income."
He hopes China’s park managers will continue to look to the Russians for advice on how to manage human-tiger conflicts. On the other side of the border, Miquelle sees continued opportunity for Russia to learn from Chinese areas of strength, such as fire management and real-time tiger monitoring.
"I think this exchange of information is going to continue. I think that joint management is going to evolve, and consequently the opportunities for tigers, leopards and the ecosystem in general is going to get better. So I think we’re going to see that process really accelerate in the next couple of years," said Miquelle.