Friday, November 19, 2021

A Vaccine Against Valley Fever Finally Works—for Dogs


Courtesy photo.


An experimental vaccine that could protect millions of people living in the American Southwest from valley fever—an infection caused by a soil-dwelling fungus that is difficult to treat and can cause disability and death—has passed its first test of efficacy and is moving toward federal approval, possibly within two years.


The catch: The vaccine was tested in, and will be developed for, dogs. A formula that could be given to humans, if it can be achieved, lies many years and millions of dollars down the road. But researchers say even this first step is notable, a significant milestone on the way to preventing potentially hundreds of thousands of human cases a year.


Valley fever is estimated to cost the US $3.9 billion per year, and by one estimate, a vaccine could save potentially $1.5 billion in health care costs every year. But that cost, and thus the urgency to achieve a vaccine, is almost certain to increase because climate change is expanding the locations where valley fever is an infection risk. The fungus responds to temperature and humidity: It needs a warm environment to thrive, and in damp conditions it remains quiescently in the soil. But as climate warming increases, new territory will open up for Coccidioides, and shifting rainfall patterns mean areas where it has begun to grow will dry out enough for it to break apart and drift. There is already a known area of vulnerability in the center of Washington State, a place that was previously thought to be too cold for the fungus. In 2010, three people contracted valley fever there, including a construction worker and a teen who had been roaring around on an ATV.


In 2019, Morgan Gorris, an Earth system scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory, used temperature and rainfall data to estimate more precisely where valley fever is endemic, based on the fungus’s known behavior in ranges of humidity and warmth. Using those findings, and combining them with different climate-warming forecasts, she modeled how valley fever’s range might expand under different scenarios of greenhouse gas emissions. Under the highest-warming scenario (a global rise of almost 9 degrees Fahrenheit), the area where the disease could become endemic would double in size by the year 2100, covering 17 states, including Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, Nebraska, and the Dakotas. The number of cases, the model predicted, would rise by half. In another analysis based on that work, she estimated that by the year 2100, the cost of valley fever to the US would reach $18.5 billion per year. (Full story)



A New Theory for Systems That Defy Newton’s Third Law


By programming a fleet of robots to behave nonreciprocally

— blue cars react to red cars differently than red cars react

to blue cars — a team of researchers elicited spontaneous

phase transitions. Credit: Quanta Magazine.


Newton’s third law tells us that for every action, there’s an equal reaction going the opposite way. It’s been reassuring us for 400 years, explaining why we don’t fall through the floor (the floor pushes up on us too), and why paddling a boat makes it glide through water. When a system is in equilibrium, no energy goes in or out and such reciprocity is the rule. Mathematically, these systems are elegantly described with statistical mechanics, the branch of physics that explains how collections of objects behave. This allows researchers to fully model the conditions that give rise to phase transitions in matter, when one state of matter transforms into another, such as when water freezes.


But many systems exist and persist far from equilibrium. Perhaps the most glaring example is life itself. We’re kept out of equilibrium by our metabolism, which converts matter into energy. A human body that settles into equilibrium is a dead body. In such systems, Newton’s third law becomes moot. Equal-and-opposite falls apart. “Imagine two particles,” said Vincenzo Vitelli, a condensed matter theorist at the University of Chicago, “where A interacts with B in a different way than how B interacts with A.” Such nonreciprocal relationships show up in systems like neuron networks and particles in fluids and even, on a larger scale, in social groups. Predators eat prey, for example, but prey doesn’t eat its predators.


For these unruly systems, statistical mechanics falls short in representing phase transitions. Out of equilibrium, nonreciprocity dominates. Flocking birds show how easily the law is broken: Because they can’t see behind them, individuals change their flight patterns in response to the birds ahead of them. So bird A doesn’t interact with bird B in the same way that bird B interacts with bird A; it’s not reciprocal. Cars barreling down a highway or stuck in traffic are similarly nonreciprocal. Engineers and physicists who work with metamaterials — which get their properties from structure, rather than substance — have harnessed nonreciprocal elements to design acoustic, quantum and mechanical devices. Many of these systems are kept out of equilibrium because individual constituents have their own power source — ATP for cells, gas for cars. But all these extra energy sources and mismatched reactions make for a complex dynamical system beyond the reach of statistical mechanics. How can we analyze phases in such ever-changing systems?


Vitelli and his colleagues see an answer in mathematical objects called exceptional points. Generally, an exceptional point in a system is a singularity, a spot where two or more characteristic properties become indistinguishable and mathematically collapse into one. At an exceptional point, the mathematical behavior of a system differs dramatically from its behavior at nearby points, and exceptional points often describe curious phenomena in systems — like lasers — in which energy is gained and lost continuously.


Now the team has found that these exceptional points also control phase transitions in nonreciprocal systems. Exceptional points aren’t new; physicists and mathematicians have studied them for decades in a variety of settings. But they’ve never been associated so generally with this type of phase transition. “That’s what no one has thought about before, using these in the context of nonequilibrium systems,” said the physicist Cynthia Reichhardt of Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. “So you can bring all the machinery that we already have about exceptional points to study these systems.” (Full story)



 LANL wins tech awards


Los Alamos National Laboratory has won eight awards for technologies and five for inventions, from the Silicon Valley-based R&D World magazine, for the best innovations of the past year.


The inventions received Special Recognition Awards, including a Gold Award for Corporate Social Responsibility, a Gold Award for Battling COVID-19, a Silver Award for Market Disruptor — Product, and Silver and Bronze Awards for Market Disruptor — Services, according to Tuesday, LANL news release.


“With these eight technology awards and five special recognition awards, we see the broader community continuing to recognize innovation from Los Alamos National Laboratory,” lab Director Thom Mason said in the release. “The people behind these awards are developing solutions to serious problems in big data, polar climates, national security, and biothreats.” (Full story)



3D simulations improve understanding of energetic-particle radiation and help protect space assets


3D simulations based on fundamental physics

principles model the production of energetic

ions and electrons.


A team of researchers used 3D particle simulations to model the acceleration of ions and electrons in a physical process called magnetic reconnection. The results could contribute to the understanding and forecasting of energetic particles released during magnetic reconnection, which could help protect space assets and advance space exploration.


"For the first time ever, we can use 3D simulations from fundamental physics principles to model the production of energetic ions and electrons in those magnetic explosions in space," said paper author Qile Zhang, of the Nuclear and Particle Physics, Astrophysics and Cosmology group at Los Alamos National Laboratory.


The research was published in Physical Review Letters. (Full story)



Recreating Deep-Earth Conditions To See How Iron Copes With Extreme Stress and Pressure


Researchers recreate deep-Earth conditions to see how iron copes

with extreme stress. Credit: Greg Stewart/SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory.


In New observations of the atomic structure of iron reveal it undergoes “twinning” under extreme stress and pressure.


Far below you lies a sphere of solid iron and nickel about as wide as the broadest part of Texas: the Earth’s inner core. The metal at the inner core is under pressure about 360 million times higher than we experience in our everyday lives and temperatures approximately as hot as the Sun’s surface.


Earth’s planetary core is thankfully intact. But in space, similar cores can collide with other objects, causing the crystalline materials of the core to deform rapidly. Some asteroids in our solar system are massive iron objects that scientists suspect are the remnants of planetary cores after catastrophic impacts.


Measuring what happens during the collision of celestial bodies or at the Earth’s core is obviously not very practical. As such, much of our understanding of planetary cores is based on experimental studies of metals at less extreme temperatures and pressures. But researchers at the Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory have now observed for the first time how iron’s atomic structure deforms to accommodate the stress from the pressures and temperatures that occur just outside of the inner core.


The results appear in Physical Review Letters, where they have been highlighted as an Editor’s Suggestion. Researchers at Los Alamos National Laboratory contributed to this study. (Full story).



Editor’s note: this edition of Press Highlights includes coverage from the week of Nov. 8