News, Science & Research

Science & Research Roundup

By and
News Editor and Science & Research Editor
Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Enzyme shown to regulate inflammation, metabolism in fat tissue

A study conducted by researchers at the University identified an enzyme, SNRK, that could play a role in combating obesity in humans, according to a University press release.

The study focused closely on the two primary sources of fat in the human body: white and brown fat tissue. White fat, which is linked to obesity, stores excess calories while brown fat burns calories to produce heat. SNRK alters the physiology of fat tissue in mice, reducing inflammation in white fat cells and increasing the metabolism of brown fat cells.

Researchers bred mice without the gene that produces SNRK and compared their fat tissue to that of normal mice. They found that mice lacking the SNRK enzyme had a “higher concentration of microphages” — immune cells used as markers for inflammation — in their white fat tissue than normal mice. The mice lacking the SNRK enzyme were also heavier and had a lower metabolic rate, indicating that the absence of SNRK affected the functioning of brown fat.

Researchers then examined SNRK’s effect on humans, studying a group of 12,000 women. They found that mutations in the “genes responsible for SNRK production … were directly associated with higher body mass index” and risk of obesity. The study, which was led by Jie Li, a research associate in epidemiology at Brown, and Bin Feng, a research associate in epidemiology at the Alpert Medical School, was published in the academic journal “Diabetes.”

Virtual reality used to control robots

A new study led by a team of undergraduate and graduate students allows users to control robots in virtual reality. Researchers hope the technology will be used to control robots remotely from large distances, bringing users directly into the surroundings of the robot.

Robots are particularly useful in environments that are not accessible to humans, such as distant planets and dangerous war zones. Today’s technology allows operators to see the robot’s surroundings using normal camera software, but controllers will now be able to fully immerse themselves in a robot’s environment using the team’s new techniques.

An HTC vive virtual reality headset controlled the robot located in the Humans to Robots lab, headed by Assistant Professor of Computer Science Stefanie Tellex. Furthermore, the team was able to control a robot located in Cambridge, Massachusetts over 41 miles away.

In the future, researchers hope to move the robot in more complex ways, including navigating it around an environment rather than just moving it in a predefined manner. The study was led by David Whitney GS and Eric Rosen ’18.

Clay minerals on Mars may have formed in primordial steam bath

Researchers questioned the early history of Mars by suggesting that the planet’s clay minerals formed during the creation of Martian crust long before the appearance of water, according to a University press release.

Previously, scientists believed that the presence of phyllosilicates, or clays, on Mars’ surface meant that the planet possessed sustained “surface water, groundwater or active hydrothermal systems” at some point in its history, according to the press release. However, Brown researchers propose that a molten magma ocean, which once existed on Mars’s surface, played a critical role in creating the clays. As this ocean began to cool and solidify, water and other substances might have been be pushed to the surface, “forming a thick, steamy atmosphere surrounding the planet,” according to the press release. This, in turn, would have converted the newly solidified surface into clay.

Kevin Cannon GS, who led the study, said the resulting atmosphere “would have been the hottest and wettest Mars ever was,” the perfect climate to create large deposits of clay. To test their hypothesis, researchers examined rock samples similar to Martian basalt in a high pressure device simulating the temperature and atmospheric conditions present on Mars as its magma ocean disappeared. After cooking the samples in the device, researchers found the rocks to be completely transformed, according to the press release.

While researchers cannot prove conclusively that their scenario occurred on Mars, their labs and experimentations support a strong hypothesis that could be further tested through Mars exploration, according to the press release.