Scienceonline (583)


 The filtration and storage of pollutants are so efficient, that blue mussels are used in environmental monitoring; they are like environmental detectives. (Photo: Janne Kim Gitmark, NIVA)

May 2015, Kristiansand, Norway. Two researchers in a boat loaded with thousands of blue mussels, collected from a mussel farm in Lillesand. The boat heads out the Kristiansand fjord, and the researchers deploy the blue mussels in the sea. Why are they doing this? Blue mussel. This shellfish has its home in the intertidal areas in the sea, where it pumps large volumes of sea water over its ciliated gills. The blue mussel filtrates phytoplankton and pollutants from the water, takes up the plankton as food, and stores the pollutants in its tissues. The filtration and storage of pollutants are so efficient, that blue mussels are used in environmental monitoring; they are like environmental detectives. But, to say something certain about the pollution level in the fjord, a lot of blue mussels is needed; and picking massive amounts in areas where there are only few mussels, or even no mussels at all, is impossible. Now the researchers are experimenting with caged mussels: can newcomer mussels replace native mussels in environmental monitoring?

3D spheroid of cultivated breast cancer cells. Invasive cells show a light blue co-staining for the leptin receptor and a marker of epithelial-mesenchymal transition (i.e. the ability of cells to metastasize). Cell nuclei are stained in red. Source: Helmholtz Zentrum München


Obesity leads to the release of cytokines into the bloodstream which impact the metabolism of breast cancer cells, making them more aggressive as a result. Scientists from Helmholtz Zentrum München, Technische Universität München (TUM), and Heidelberg University Hospital report on this in ‘Cell Metabolism’. The team has already been able to halt this mechanism with an antibody treatment. The number of people with obesity is increasing rapidly worldwide. The German Cancer Research Center (DKFZ) recently reported that according to the WHO the number of children and adolescents with obesity increased tenfold between 1975 and 2016.  Severe overweight can lead to various health impairments. Besides inducing cardiovascular diseases, obesity for example also promotes the development of cancer and metastases. The current study elucidates an as yet unknown mechanism making breast cancer more aggressive. The enzyme ACC1* plays a central role in this process," said Dr. Mauricio Berriel Diaz, deputy director of the Institute for Diabetes and Cancer (IDC) at Helmholtz Zentrum München. He led the study together with Stephan Herzig, director of the IDC and professor for Molecular Metabolic Control at TUM and Heidelberg University Hospital. “ACC1 is a key component of fatty acid synthesis," said Berriel Diaz. “However, its function is impaired by the cytokines leptin and TGF-β.“ The levels of these cytokines are increased particularly in the blood of severely overweight subjects.


Biochar can help us address many environmental challenges. This form of CO2 capture and storage reduces the need for fertilisers and may lead to better crop yields. It can also remove heavy metals from the soil. Photo: Lisbet Jære.


If 4,000 Norwegian farms and nurseries produced biochar and mixed it with the soil, we could halve CO2 emissions from the agricultural sector. This entirely natural approach also produces more robust and healthy plants. There is a new addition among the greenhouses at the Skjærgaarden nursery – Norway’s first biochar plant.  Biochar is identical to charcoal (or barbecue coal), but can be manufactured not only from wood, but also from other kinds of organic material. The nursery is hosting the first biochar demo plant in Norway, which has been installed in collaboration with the cross-disciplinary research project CAPTURE+. “Our motivation for starting biochar production is to improve the soil”, says Kristin Stenersen, who runs the Skjærgaarden nursery together with her husband Bjørge Madsen. “We want more robust and healthier plants, and to reduce our use of synthetic pesticides and artificial fertilisers. Of course, the fact that biochar also binds CO2 is an added benefit”, she says. “People are welcome to come and see for themselves how it works in practice”, says Maria Kollberg Thomassen, who is a Senior Researcher at SINTEF and Project Manager for CAPTURE+.


A new study found a link between sleep duration and a measure of chromosomal health in sperm. The findings are published in the Journal of Sleep Research. In the study of 2020 semen samples provided by 796 male volunteers from colleges in Chongqing (China) from 2013 to 2015, volunteers with more than 9 hours per day of sleep and those with 6.5 hours or less per day sleep had 41% and 30% lower High DNA Stainability—an index that represents the proportion of sperm with abnormal chromatin—than did volunteers with 7 to 7.5 hours per day of sleep. Chromatin is a complex of DNA and proteins that forms chromosomes. “This is new information after our pervious finding that sleep duration has an inverse U-shaped association with semen volume and total sperm count. In the previous study, we found that these two semen parameters were highest when sleep is 7.0 to 7.5 hours per day, and either longer or shorter sleep was associated with the decrease of the two semen parameters.”, said Dr. Jia Cao, co-author of the study.



The Center for World University Rankings (CWUR), publisher of the largest academic ranking of global universities, released today its inaugural subjects ranking. The ranking features the top global universities in 227 subjects covering all academic disciplines in the sciences and social sciences.

Harvard University leads the way globally, achieving Top-10 placements in 112 subjects, including 72 top places.

Institutions with the most Top-10 placements worldwide are:

1. Harvard University, USA (112 Top-10 subjects) 
2. University of Toronto, Canada (66 Top-10 subjects) 
3. University of Michigan, USA (57 Top-10 subjects) 
4. University of Pennsylvania, USA (54 Top-10 subjects) 
5. Johns Hopkins University, USA (51 Top-10 subjects) 
6. University of California, Berkeley, USA (50 Top-10 subjects) 
7. Stanford University, USA (48 Top-10 subjects) 
8. University of Oxford, United Kingdom (47 Top-10 subjects) 
9. University of Washington, USA (45 Top-10 subjects) 
10. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA (41 Top-10 subjects)


At the ongoing EU-hosted Our Ocean conference in Malta (5-6 October), the European Union has committed to 36 tangible actions to foster healthier, cleaner, safer and more secure seas. Amounting to over €550 million and involving activities worldwide, the announcements underline the EU's determination to improve the situation of the seas and send a positive signal of encouragement to the rest of the world – governments and private sector alike - to step up and tackle the growing ocean challenges, from plastic pollution and protecting marine life to the impact of climate change and criminal activities at sea.

The EU's 36 commitments are described in detail below.

Maritime security is the basis for global trade and prosperity, but it is under threat - from natural disasters to piracy, trafficking and armed conflict. To make our oceans safer and more secure the European Union announced:

  • €37.5 million to ensure maritime security and counter piracy along the south-eastern African coastline and in the Indian Ocean. The funds are to be implemented by four regional organisations (IGAD, COMESA, EAC and IOC) in cooperation with UNODC, INTERPOL and FAO. The programme supports alternative livelihood initiatives in the coastal pirate areas of Somalia, investigation capacities at national and regional level, prison reforms, prosecution and judicial capacity, disruption of illegal financial flows, combating money laundering, and various other maritime tasks, in addition to a regional mechanism for the coordination and exchange of maritime information.
  • €4 million of investment in its satellite monitoring programme (Copernicus) in 2017 to support EU agencies and EU Member States in monitoring oil pollution and large-scale commercial fisheries (including the fight against illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing) in the Northeast Atlantic, the Mediterranean, the Baltic, the North Sea, the Black Sea, the Pacific Ocean and around the Canary Islands. Copernicus will also introduce new services to support law enforcement and navigation safety in ice-infested areas.
  • continued support for maritime security in the Gulf of Guinea, including through the Gulf of Guinea Inter-Regional Network and the launch of two new programmes: the SWAIMS programme (Support to West Africa Integrated Maritime Security), worth €29 million, and the programme to improving port security in West and Central Africa, worth €8.5 million.
  • €1 million in 2017 to support the upgrading of the ICT systems of EU maritime authorities and facilitate cooperation between them. Furthermore, the European Union announced that it will contribute €80,000 to facilitate cooperation between coastguard authorities in Europe.
  • the launch of a prototype surveillance tool in September 2017 which detects ships to reveal the extent of human activities at sea. The 'Search for Unidentified Maritime Objects' tool, or 'SUMO' for short, is a piece of software that automatically analyses data from radar imaging satellites to find vessels as small as 1 metre long, even in cloudy conditions or at night. The SUMO tool is open source, to promote uptake by users and developers and facilitate international cooperation on mapping of ship routes, monitoring shipping intensity, identifying polluting ships, monitoring fishing activities, countering piracy and smuggling, and controlling maritime borders.

 The JRC’s new dataset shows maps of migrant communities across Europe.


This week scientists unveiled a unique dataset that maps the diverse migrant communities living in the EU. The maps will provide policy makers with new insights and a better overall picture to develop local policies to help migrants integrate in their host countries. The maps show residential patterns of migrant communities by their nationality or the country where they were born, at the level of neighbourhoods. From the underlying data researchers can calculate the concentration, diversity and segregation of migrants from different countries and compare these indicators within and across cities. For example, JRC scientists found that Chinese and Filipino communities in Europe are likely to be highly clustered and segregated from their host communities. Scientists also found that there is a general correlation between how segregated a migrant community may be and the geographical and linguistic distance between their countries of origin and destination.




Erik Kristiansson, Professor in biostatistics at Chalmers University of Technology


Researchers at Chalmers University of Technology and the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, have found several previously unknown genes that make bacteria resistant to last-resort antibiotics. The genes were found by searching large volumes of bacterial DNA and the results are published in the scientific journal Microbiome. The increasing number of infections caused by antibiotic-resistant bacteria is a rapidly growing global problem. Disease-causing bacteria become resistant through mutations of their own DNA or by acquiring resistance genes from other, often harmless, bacteria. By analysing large volumes of DNA data, the researchers found 76 new types of resistance genes. Several of these genes can provide bacteria with the ability to degrade carbapenems, our most powerful class of antibiotics used to treat multi-resistant bacteria. “Our study shows that there are lots of unknown resistance genes. Knowledge about these genes makes it possible to more effectively find and hopefully tackle new forms of multi-resistant bacteria”, says Erik Kristiansson, Professor in biostatistics at Chalmers University of Technology and principal investigator of the study.



Human papillomavirus type 18 (HPV18) is the second most common oncogenic HPV genotype, responsible for ∼15% of cervical cancers worldwide. In this study, we constructed a full HPV18 transcription map using HPV18-infected raft tissues derived from primary human vaginal or foreskin keratinocytes. By using 5' rapid amplification of cDNA ends (RACE), we mapped two HPV18 transcription start sites (TSS) for early transcripts at nucleotide (nt) 55 and nt 102 and the HPV18 late TSS frequently at nt 811, 765, or 829 within the E7 open reading frame (ORF) of the virus genome. HPV18 polyadenylation cleavage sites for early and late transcripts were mapped to nt 4270 and mainly to nt 7299 or 7307, respectively, by using 3' RACE.


The levels of mercury in the Oslofjord cod has increased over the last 30 years, despite reduced emissions of this toxic element. In the same period, the average size of sampled cod has increased. Are the elevated levels of mercury simply a result of larger cod? Historical use and emissions of mercury have resulted in its leaking into the environment, and mercury has found its way to the Oslofjord cod. Mercury has toxic effects on the nerve system, and may have negative impacts on fine motor skills, cognitive abilities, attentiveness and memory. The Norwegian Institute of Water Research (NIVA) has been monitoring the mercury levels in the Oslofjord cod since 1984, and now a group of researchers can present the latest news about the fish in a newly published research article. This article may uncover the reasons behind the mysterious increase in mercury over the last thirty years.

More mercury

In several studies researchers have been investigating the processes by which mercury is taken up in wildlife. One would think that the mercury levels in wildlife were reduced over the last years, considering the deposition of mercury in Southeast Norway is reduced. But more intense rainfalls have increased wash-out of humus substances in inland waters, and in those environments mercury has possibly become more available for uptake in organisms, by processes that the researchers do not yet fully understand. Theoretically, this could contribute to the changes also observed in the Oslofjord cod. Another explanation for the elevated mercury levels could be a change in cod diet towards more contaminated prey. Unfortunately, there is no historic prey data available for comparison. NIVA researcher Anders Ruus still thinks they have come closer to an answer.

- Our analyses indicate that close to a third of the variation in mercury concentration was explained solely by variation in fish length, says Ruus.

Thus, it seems like bigger fish size causes higher mercury levels.

- The average length of the sampled Oslofjord cod has increased over the last decades, and this might be the main explanation of the pronounced increase in mercury levels. When we corrected the data for fish length, there was no significant increase in mercury concentrations.

Loves proteins

The concept of bigger and older organisms having higher levels of certain toxicants is well-established in the field of toxicology. It is called bioaccumulation: a toxicant is more easily absorbed through feed than excreted, and over time, the toxicant accumulates in the organism. Pure mercury is not readily taken up in organisms; but in aquatic environments where oxygen is not present, small microbes can transform mercury to methyl mercury. This substance easily binds to proteins. By this mechanism mercury enters the food chain, and the concentration builds up for each level in the chain. The compound is stored in protein-rich tissue like muscles, which is the part of the cod that humans prefer to eat. By this route, humans are also exposed.

Why is the cod larger?

There are two possible explanations to why the Oslofjord cod is bigger: Either there has been a change in the cod population, or there has been a shift in the sampling methods towards fishing larger cod.

- Beach seine surveys in the Inner Oslofjord have shown that cod recruitment has been low since the beginning of the 2000s. In 2014 there were no young fish observed at all, says Ruus.

The reason for these changes in the cod population is unknown, and this needs to be investigated further.

But the fact that there is a tolerance for fish length in the protocol for selecting fish could cause the analyses to show a trend that isn’t necessarily real.

- Since we started monitoring in the mid-eighties, there has been an increasing number of chemical parameters to be analysed, demanding sampling of more tissue per fish. As there is a tolerance for fish length in the protocol, we cannot exclude the possibility of a bias towards sampling more of the larger fish, even if all guidelines have been followed, Ruus explains.

Anyhow, length cannot be the only factor causing the increase in mercury, Ruus emphasizes. More research is needed to investigate other explaining factors.

This study was done by the Norwegian Institute of Water Research (NIVA) with economic support from the Research Council of Norway. Data collection is part of the Norwegian contribution to OSPAR´s (Oslo and Paris Commission) Joint Assessment and Monitoring Programme (JAMP). This is conducted by NIVA by contract from the Norwegian Environment Agency.


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