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Posted on Apr 7, 2014

Quick Takes

Quick Takes

New Carnivore in Cloud Forests

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A two-pound mammal that looks like a cross between a house cat and a teddy bear has a claim to fame as the first new carnivore species discovered in the Western Hemisphere in 35 years.

In August, scientists in Washington, D.C., and Raleigh unveiled the olinguito (oh-lin-GHEE-toe), a member of the same family as raccoons, coatis, kinkajous and olingos. The tree-dwelling species lives in the cloud forests of Colombia and Ecuador, high in the Andes Mountains.


A newly discovered carnivore called the olinguito makes its home high in the Andes Mountains.

Zoologist Roland Kays, on faculty at NC State’s College of Natural Resources and biodiversity lab director at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, helped track down the olinguito in the wild. The expedition was prompted by a fresh look at museum specimens.

“The data from the old specimens gave us an idea of where to look, but it still seemed like a shot in the dark,” Kays says. “But these Andean forests are so amazing that even if we didn’t find the animal we were looking for, I knew our team would discover something cool along the way.”

A few seconds of grainy video shot by a colleague in Ecuador confirmed the olinguito’s existence in the cloud forest. Team members set out on a three-week expedition to document the habits of the large-eyed creature with orange-brown fur. They learned that the olinguito rarely leaves the trees, where it is active mostly at night. Its diet is mostly fruit, and it has one offspring at a time.

“Proving that a species exists and giving it a name is where everything starts,” says Kristofer Helgen, curator of mammals at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History and leader of the team reporting the olinguito’s discovery.

“If new carnivores can still be found, what other surprises await us?”

Big Data Research Advances

NC State’s new Laboratory for Analytic Sciences, a $60 million partnership with the National Security Agency, is advancing big data analytics as the cornerstone of an innovation hub on Centennial Campus.

“We have set a strong foundation for this collaboration. Our faculty expertise matches the lab’s needs well,” notes Randy K. Avent, associate vice chancellor for research development and university lead for the partnership. “We are pleased with the strong integration of many disciplines including engineering and the physical sciences, along with behavioral and social sciences, and the arts.”

The LAS research will promote new advances in the science of big data and the intelligence analysis process through innovative collaborations among industry, academia and government. The new enterprise is expected to bring 100 new jobs to the Triangle over the next several years.

“The LAS is founded on the principles of collaboration and innovation, as evidenced by our choice of location, multidisciplinary staff and approach to problem solving,” explains LAS Director J. David Harris. “Research at the LAS will build upon existing analysis and analytics solutions, rethinking the enormous challenges and opportunities that are emerging as a result of big data.”

LAS is engaged in research to address the analytic challenges required to maintain global awareness and strategic foresight within the U.S. intelligence community. Specifically, LAS is investigating ways to make sense of existing data by arranging them to highlight patterns and trends, thus allowing narratives to be recognized. It is also creating strategies to deal with the volume, variety, veracity and velocity of data.

NC State has wide-ranging activities in the research, application and training of analytics. For example, the Institute for Advanced Analytics offers an intensive Master of Science in Analytics degree with before-graduation job-placement rates of more than 90 percent. Also, the Center for Innovation Management Studies is a global, virtual, university/ industry cooperative research center based in the Poole College of Management.

Raleigh’s Changing Identity

Could Raleigh, proudly known as the City of Oaks, end up having much less tree cover, like Baltimore?

Though it’s not likely that Raleigh will have to rethink its New Year’s Eve drop of the giant acorn any time soon, planners and policymakers should take steps to prevent the City of Oaks from looking like the home of The Wire. That’s the bottom line of an NC State study, funded by the National Science Foundation, published in the journal Ecosystems by researchers Kevin Bigsby, Melissa McHale and George Hess.

“In the Southeast, it’s easy to take tree cover for granted,” says McHale, whose focus is forestry and environmental sciences. “To keep the benefits of urban forests, we need to consider the reasons why we will or will not have our trees in the future.”

At a leafy 55 percent, Raleigh’s tree cover overshadows Baltimore’s 24 percent. But the gap could be closing because of trends in urban morphology — factors related to development patterns, housing density and land parcel size.

Raleigh Skyline with tree cover in front of it

Researchers say Raleigh’s abundant tree cover could be threatened.

NC State scientists had a hand in a massive research project highlighted in Science that sheds light on how flowering plants suddenly came into prominence more than 200 million years ago — what Charles Darwin referred to as an “abominable mystery” of evolution.

A team of scientists, funded by the National Science Foundation, sequenced the genome of Amborella trichopoda, a rare plant from a South Pacific island that can trace its lineage back to the last common ancestor of all flowering plants, including food crops like tomatoes, apples and legumes, as well as hardwood trees such as oaks and poplars.

Amborella trichopoda

Scientists have sequenced the genome of Amborella trichopoda, a rare plant from a South Pacific island. Photo courtesy of Wertheim Conservatory, Florida International University, Miami

Lead researcher Claude dePamphilis of Penn State asked experts with NC State’s Forest Biotechnology Group, led by Vincent Chiang and Ron Sederoff, to analyze Amborella’s cell walls and lignin genes. Lignin gives wood its strength.

Their analysis revealed that the species had an unusual ratio of two types of lignin, indicating an early stage of flowering plant evolution. In addition to shedding light on Darwin’s mystery, lignin analysis of Amborella could have practical applications for the pulp and paper industry.

Speaking of Health Care

Communication is essential to doctors, nurses and other health professionals, but language and cultural barriers prevent many people in the United States from communicating effectively with their health care providers.

To help address the issue, Spanish-language scholars at NC State have launched a project called ProSalud, or ProHealth. The project includes a textbook focused on health communication in Spanish, an online certification program in Spanish for health professionals that is open to the public, and an online course for NC State students.

Patient and two health care professionals

Scholars have launched a project to help health professionals communicate more effectively across cultures.

The book, El Mundo Hispano y la Salud, or The Spanish World and Health, addresses cultural differences, not just the language barrier, says Ana Gray, who co-authored the book.

In most Spanish-speaking cultures, whether it’s an emergency or a check-up, the entire family is involved in issues related to health,” she says. “Ten people will show up when someone goes to the emergency room. A lot of American doctors and nurses don’t know what’s going on.”

Driving Down Biofuel Costs

Researchers at NC State have developed a simple, effective and relatively inexpensive technique for removing lignin from the plant material used to make biofuels, which may drive down the cost of biofuel production.

Lignin, nature’s way of protecting plant cell walls, is difficult to break down or remove from plant biomass, such as the nonedible parts of the corn plant. However, that lignin needs to be extracted in order to reach the energy-rich cellulose that is used to make biofuels.

“Finding inexpensive ways to remove lignin is one of the largest barriers to producing cost-effective biofuels,” says Ezinne Achinivu, a graduate student in chemical and biomolecular engineering and lead author of a paper describing the new technique that was published online in the journal Green Chemistry.

The researchers began by making a number of liquid salts called “protic ionic liquids” or PILs. These PILs are made by mixing an acid, such as acetic acid (more commonly known as vinegar), and a base. As part of the pretreatment process, one of the PILs is mixed with biomass and then heated and stirred. The lignin dissolves into the PIL, leaving the cellulose behind as a solid. The cellulose, which is now much easier to process, is then easily filtered from the mixture for use in the next biofuel production steps.

The researchers are currently applying the technique to wood and other biomass feedstock materials, to better understand and fine-tune the interactions between the PILs and lignin. Their research was supported by the U.S. Air Force Office of Scientific Research.

Android Security at Risk

Computer security researchers have found that Android smartphone manufacturers are inadvertently incorporating new vulnerabilities into their products when they customize the phones before sale. On average, the researchers found that 60 percent of the vulnerabilities found in the smartphone models they evaluated were due to such “vendor customizations.”

Although Google creates the base Android platform that all Android smartphones use to operate, vendors — such as Samsung, Sony and HTC — customize that platform to integrate their hardware. These vendors also incorporate applications they or their partners have developed.

With funding from the National Science Foundation, a team led by NC State computer security expert Xuxian Jiang sought to determine if these customizations posed security threats.

The researchers looked at 10 representative Android smartphone models and found that vendor customizations were responsible for an average of 80 percent of the apps that came preloaded onto the phones.

“All 10 devices were vulnerable, based purely on the preloaded apps,” Jiang says. “The older versions had an average of 22.4 vulnerabilities per device, while the newer versions had an average of 18.4 vulnerabilities per device.”

Vulnerabilities discovered by the team include the ability to record audio and make phone calls without the user’s permission, and the ability to wipe out the user’s data.

When Whales Can’t be Rescued

Each year between one and five large whales beach themselves along the North Carolina coast. Most of these whales are already dead, and the others beach because they are usually too sick or injured to survive. Rescue in these cases is not an option. But death for a beached whale is a horrible process that can involve days of suffering.

NC State’s Craig Harms, an aquatic wildlife veterinarian, witnessed this suffering firsthand and wanted to find a way to help these stranded animals. He teamed up with marine mammal experts Bill McLellan from UNC-Wilmington, Michael Moore from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and Susan Barco from the Virginia Aquarium to develop a humane way to deliver euthanasia drugs to beached whales.

The protocol includes a specially designed needle and a cocktail of sedatives and analgesics. The solution is an inexpensive, simple and natural salt that stops the heart and doesn’t pose a danger to any scavengers.

Harms and his colleagues published four separate case reports using this method in the current Journal of Wildlife Diseases. The research was funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service through the John H. Prescott Marine Mammal Rescue Assistance Grant Program.

Targeting Teen Alcohol Use

If you want teens to avoid risky behavior, you can’t just give them facts. You must get them to engage with information, feel motivated to change, and have the confidence and skills to keep themselves safe.

That’s the idea behind a project under way at NC State and the University of California, San Francisco to develop interactive software aimed at helping teens reduce alcohol use and the risks associated with drinking alcohol. The study is funded by the National Science Foundation.

“Our goal is to help adolescents make informed decisions about alcohol use,” says James Lester, a member of the computer science faculty at NC State and one of the project leaders.

Lester’s team will be creating software that engages adolescents aged 15 to 17 in role-playing scenarios about alcohol use and helps them understand the results of the various paths that they can choose.

“All You Need Is Love”

A review of five decades of hit songs identified 12 key themes marketing professionals can use to craft advertisements.

“People are exposed to a barrage of advertisements and they often respond by tuning out those advertisements. We wanted to see what we could learn from hit songs to help advertisers break through all that clutter,” says marketing expert David Henard in NC State’s Poole College of Management, lead author of a paper in the Journal of Advertising Research. A Poole colleague, Christian Rossetti, is a co-author.

The researchers considered top songs on Billboard magazine’s “Hot 100” list, ranging from “El Paso” by Marty Robbins in early 1960 to “Empire State of Mind” by Jay-Z and Alicia Keys in late 2009.

A textual analysis of the lyrics revealed key themes common across the 50 years: loss, desire, aspiration, breakup, pain, inspiration, nostalgia, rebellion, jaded, desperation, escapism and confusion.

“Rebellion,” a prominent theme in the ’60s and ’70s, did not break the top 10 in the ’80s — and was in the middle of the pack in the ’90s and ’00s. Desperation and inspiration leapt to the top in the ’00s for the first time — possibly, Henard notes, due to effects of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

What’s Eating You?

It’s a jungle out there. Humans can be infected by more than 1,400 parasites — viruses, bacteria, fungi, etc.

What happens if you have two simultaneous infections? If one infection is treated with a regimen of drugs, will the other infection go away? What if you take drugs and the other infection worsens?

“We don’t understand enough about many of these relationships to know if treating one infection can also curb another simultaneous infection — whether it may figuratively kill two birds with one stone — or if treatment of one infection hampers healing of the other,” says Emily Griffiths, an NC State postdoctoral researcher and lead author of paper in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

With colleagues from United Kingdom and Switzerland, she provides a first glimpse at how multiple parasites interact within humans. Using data from more than 300 published studies, they compiled a list of many parasites that infect humans, noting the respective body parts affected and ways the immune system responds.

The team then constructed a large network of multiple infections in humans, a veritable “food web” of infections inside the human body.

The work revealed previously unknown infection pattern, suggesting treatment strategies for multiple infections, Griffiths says.