Bacteria That Cause Periodontitis Are Transmitted From Parents to Children (Medicine)

A study led by researchers at the University of Campinas reinforces the need for prevention and follow-up treatment starting in early childhood to avoid development of this inflammatory disease of the gums.

Adults with periodontitis transmit bacteria that can cause the disease in future to their children, and the bacteria remain in the oral cavity even when the children undergo treatment of various kinds, reinforcing the need for preventive care in the first year of a baby’s life. This is the main conclusion of a study conducted at the University of Campinas (UNICAMP) in the state of São Paulo, Brazil. An article on the study is published in Scientific Reports.

Periodontitis is an inflammation of the periodontium, the tissue that supports the teeth and maintains them in the maxillary and mandibular bones. The disease is triggered by bacterial infection. Symptoms include bleeding of the gums and halitosis. In severe cases, it leads to bone and tooth loss. If the bacteria or other microorganisms that cause the disease enter the bloodstream, they may trigger other kinds of inflammation in the body. Treatment includes cleaning of the pockets around teeth by a dentist or hygienist and administration of anti-inflammatory drugs or antibiotics.

“The parents’ oral microbiome is a determinant of the subgingival microbial colonization of their children,” the article’s authors state in their conclusions, adding that “dysbiotic microbiota acquired by children of periodontitis patients at an early age are resilient to shift and the community structure is maintained even after controlling the hygiene status”.

According to dental surgeon Mabelle de Freitas Monteiro, first author of the article, she and her group have been researching periodontitis for ten years, observing parents with the disease and its impact on their children’s health.

“If the findings are applied to day-to-day dental practice, the study can be said to help design more direct approaches. Knowing that periodontal disease may affect the patient’s family is an incentive to use preventive treatment, seek early diagnosis and mitigate complications,” said Monteiro, who was supported by FAPESP via two projects (16/03704-7 and 16/19970-8). 

The principal investigator for both projects was Renato Corrêa Viana Casarin, a professor at UNICAMP’s Piracicaba Dental School (FOP) and last author of the article. 

For Casarin, parents should start caring for the health of their children’s gums when they are infants. “This pioneering study compares parents with and without periodontitis. In children of the former, we found subgingival bacterial colonization at a very early age. However, ‘inheriting’ the problem doesn’t mean a child is fated to develop the disease in adulthood. Hence the importance of keeping an eye open for the smallest signs and seeking specialized help,” Casarin said.

Data on the Brazilian population’s oral health is scarce. According to the last national dental epidemiological survey, conducted by the Ministry of Health in 2010, 18% of children aged 12 had never been to the dentist and 11.7% had experienced bleeding of the gums. In the 15-19 age group, 13.6% had never visited a dental clinic. Another survey was scheduled for 2020 but had to be postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The São Paulo State Department of Health published the findings of its latest oral health survey in 2019, showing among other things that 50.5% of adults aged 35-44 complained of toothache, bleeding gums and periodontitis (read more at: 


In the FOP-UNICAMP study led by Casarin and Monteiro, samples of subgingival biofilm and plaque were collected from 18 adults with a history of generalized aggressive (grade C) periodontitis, their children aged 6-12, and 18 orally healthy adults. 

In addition to a clinical analysis, the samples were also subjected to a microbiological analysis and genetic sequencing by researchers at Ohio State University in the United States under the supervision of Professor Purnima Kumar.

“Children of periodontitis parents were preferentially colonized by Filifactor alocisPorphyromonas gingivalisAggregatibacter actinomycetemcomitansStreptococcus parasanguinisFusobacterium nucleatum and several species belonging to the genus Selenomonas even in the absence of periodontitis,” the article states. “These pathogens also emerged as robust discriminators of the microbial signatures of children of parents with periodontitis.”

Casarin told Agência FAPESP that despite bacterial plaque control and vigorous brushing the children of people with the disease still had the bacteria in their mouths, whereas the effects of dental hygiene and prophylaxis were more significant in the children of healthy subjects. 

“Because the parents had periodontitis, their children assumed this community with disease characteristics. They carried the bacterial information into their adult lives,” he said, adding that the analysis of bacterial colonization pointed to a greater likelihood of transmission by the mother. The research group will now work with pregnant women in an effort to “break the cycle” by preventing bacterial colonization of their children’s mouths.

“We’ll treat the mothers during pregnancy, before the babies are born, and try to find out if it’s possible to prevent bacterial colonization from occurring,” Casarin said, noting that studies with patients will proceed only when control of the pandemic permits. 


The periodontitis research group led by Casarin has won prizes at home and abroad. In 2019, Monteiro topped the clinical research category of the IADR’s Hatton Competition. The IADR (International Association for Dental Research) hosts the world’s leading conference on dentistry, and the competition is designed to provide an opportunity for the best junior investigators to present their research (read more in Portuguese at: 

Years earlier the group won an award from the American Academy of Periodontology for the study with the most significant clinical impact.

The article “Parents with periodontitis impact the subgingival colonization of their offspring” is at:

Featured image: A study led by researchers at the University of Campinas reinforces the need for prevention and follow-up treatment starting in early childhood to avoid development of this inflammatory disease of the gums (photo: Jenny Friedrichs/Pixabay)

Provided by FAPESP

Shape-shifting Ebola virus Protein Exploits Human RNA To Change Shape (Biology)

New study highlights VP40 as a promising therapeutic target

The human genome contains the instructions to make tens of thousands of proteins. Each protein folds into a precise shape–and biologists are taught that defined shape dictates the protein’s destined function. Tens of thousands of singular shapes drive the tens of thousands of needed functions.

In a new Cell Reports study, researchers at La Jolla Institute for Immunology demonstrate how Ebola virus has found a different way to get things done. The virus encodes only eight proteins but requires dozens of functions in its lifecycle. The new study shows how one of Ebola virus’s key proteins, VP40, uses molecular triggers in the human cell to transform itself into different tools for different jobs.

“We’re all taught that proteins have ‘a’ structure,” says study co-leader Erica Ollmann Saphire, Ph.D., professor at La Jolla Institute for Immunology (LJI) and member of the LJI Center for Infectious Disease and Vaccine Research. “Ebola virus’s VP40 protein, however, changes itself into different structures at different times, depending on the function needed.”

VP40 is the protein that gives Ebola virus its distinctive string-like shape. Saphire’s previous studies showed that VP40 can take on a two-molecule, butterfly-shaped “dimer” or an eight-molecule, wreath-like “octamer” form.

There are dramatic rearrangements of the protein as it transforms from one to the other. The dimer is what physically constructs new viruses that emerge and release from infected cells. The octamer functions only inside the infected cell, in a controlling role, directing other steps of the viral life cycle.

The new study shows exactly what triggers these structural changes. The researchers found that VP40 senses and relies on particular human mRNA to make the transformation from the dimer to octamer.

Saphire worked with study co-corresponding author Scripps Research Professor Kristian Andersen, Ph.D. to deeply sequence RNAs captured and selected by VP40 inside cells. VP40 selected particular sequences, most often found in the untranslated tails of human mRNA.

Saphire lab postdoctoral fellows Hal Wasserman Ph.D. and co-first author Sara Landeras Bueno, Ph.D. , worked with purified VP40 in test tubes to get a glimpse of the dimer-to-octamer transformation in action. The duo tested many combinations of RNA molecules to try to trigger the transformation and found that particular human mRNA sequences rich in bases guanine and adenine were ideal for driving the same conformational change in vitro that they saw in high-resolution structures of VP40.

“We were very excited and surprised to see that the RNA that triggers this change comes from the host cell and not the virus,” says Landeras Bueno. “The virus is hijacking the host cell–this is another example of a virus acting like a parasite.”

Saphire says the study sheds light on the fundamentals of how information is encoded in the genome. There’s the genetic code, of course, but Ebola virus also controls how VP40 is deployed during different stages of its life cycle. “It has an additional layer of programming,” Saphire says.

The new study also offers further evidence that VP40 is a promising target for effective therapies. Because Ebola virus cannot spread without VP40, the virus is unlikely to acquire VP40 mutations that let it “escape” antibody therapies. This vulnerability has led the LJI team to think of VP40 as Ebola’s Achilles’ heel.

“VP40 fulfills an elaborate system of requirements for Ebola virus, so we don’t expect it to change much,” says Wasserman. “That means if we could attack VP40 specifically, the virus would be helpless.”

Wasserman says the octamer’s regulatory function is still slightly mysterious. The octamer is known to be essential to the Ebola virus life cycle, but more work needs to be done to understand how this VP40 structure controls Ebola virus replication.

Saphire is very interested in investigating whether other viruses–or living organisms–have proteins with the same “structural plasticity” as VP40. “I’ve always wanted to know if this kind of functionality is more common in biology than we think,” she says.

The study, “Cellular mRNA triggers structural transformation of Ebola virus matrix protein VP40 to its essential regulatory form,” was supported by the National Institutes of Health (grant P41 GM128577), the U.S. Department of Energy (contracts no. DE-AC02-06CH11357 and DE-AC02-76SF00515); and by the National Institutes of Health, National Institute of General Medical Sciences (grant P41 GM103393).

Additional study authors include co-first author Glenn Oliveira, Zachary L. VanAernum, Florian Busch, Zhe Li Salie and Vicki H. Wysocki.

Featured image: The cover image is an artistic representation of how butterfly-shaped dimers of the Ebola virus matrix protein VP40 combine and structurally transform the create the VP40 octameric ring. © The image was created by Christina Corbaci. Used with permission from Cell Reports.

Provided by La Jolla Institute for Immunology

New Jurassic Flying Reptile Reveals the Oldest Opposed Thumb (Paleontology)

A new 160-million-year-old arboreal pterosaur species, dubbed ‘Monkeydactyl’, has the oldest true opposed thumb – a novel structure previously not known in pterosaurs.

An international team of researchers from China, Brazil, UK, Denmark and Japan have described a new Jurassic pterosaur Kunpengopterus antipollicatus, which was discovered in the Tiaojishan Formation of Liaoning, China.

It is a small-bodied darwinopteran pterosaur, with an estimated wingspan of 85 cm. Most importantly, the specimen was preserved with an opposed pollex (“thumb”) on both hands.

The species name ‘antipollicatus’ means ‘opposite thumbed’ in ancient Greek, in light of the opposed thumb of the new species. This is the first discovery of a pterosaur with an opposed thumb. It also represents the earliest record of a true opposed thumb in Earth’s history. The researchers published their discovery today in the journal Current Biology.

A true opposed pollex is mostly present in mammals (e.g. primates) and some tree frogs, but extremely rare among extant reptiles except for chameleons. This discovery adds to the list that darwinopteran pterosaurs such as K. antipollicatus also evolved an opposed thumb.

The research team scanned the fossil of K. antipollicatus using micro-computed tomography (micro-CT), a technique making use of X-ray to image an object. By studying its forelimb morphology and musculature, they suggest that K. antipollicatus could have used its hand for grasping, which is likely an adaptation for arboreal life.

In order to test the arboreal interpretation, the team analysed K. antipollicatus and other pterosaurs using a set of anatomical characters related to arboreal adaptation. The results support K. antipollicatus as an arboreal species, but not the other pterosaurs from the same ecosystem. This suggests niche-partitioning among these pterosaurs and provides the first quantitative evidence that at least some darwinopteran pterosaurs were arboreal.

Fion Waisum Ma, co-author of the study and PhD researcher at the University of Birmingham, said: “The fingers of ‘Monkeydactyl’ are tiny and partly embedded in the slab. Thanks to micro-CT scanning, we could see through the rocks, create digital models and tell how the opposed thumb articulates with the other finger bones.

“This is an interesting discovery. It provides the earliest evidence of a true opposed thumb, and it is from a pterosaur – which wasn’t known for having an opposed thumb.”

Xuanyu Zhou from China University of Geosciences who led the study commented: “Tiaojishan palaeoforest is home to many organisms, including three genera of darwinopteran pterosaurs. Our results show that K. antipollicatus has occupied a different niche from Darwinopterus and Wukongopterus, which has likely minimized competition among these pterosaurs.”

Rodrigo V. Pêgas from Federal University of ABC, in Sao Bernardo, Brazil, said: “Darwinopterans are a group of pterosaurs from the Jurassic of China and Europe, named after Darwin due to their unique transitional anatomy that has revealed how evolution affected the anatomy of pterosaurs throughout time.

“On top of that, a particular darwinopteran fossil has been preserved with two associated eggs, revealing clues to pterosaur reproduction. They’ve always been considered precious fossils for these reasons and it is impressive that new darwinopteran species continue to surprise us!”

Featured image: Life reconstruction of K. antipollicatus (Image credit: Chuang Zhao)

Reference: “A new darwinopteran pterosaur reveals arborealism and an opposed thumb” by Xuanyu Zhou, Rodrigo V. Pêgas, Waisum Ma, Gang Han, Xingsheng Jin, Maria E.C. Leal, Niels Bonde, Yoshitsugu Kobayashi, Stephan Lautenschlager, Xuefang Wei, Caizhi Shen and Shu’an Ji, 12 April 2021, Current Biology.
DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2021.03.030

Provided by University of Birmingham

New Study Reveals Brain Basis of Psychopathy (Neuroscience)

According to a Finnish study, the structure and function of the brain areas involved in emotions and their regulation are altered in both psychopathic criminal offenders and otherwise well-functioning individuals who have personality traits associated with psychopathy.

Psychopathy is a personality disorder characterised by persistent antisocial behaviour, impaired empathy, and bold, disinhibited and egotistical traits. However, similar antisocial traits are also common, yet less pronounced, with people who are well-off psychologically and socially. It is possible that the characteristics related to psychopathy form a continuum where only the extreme characteristics lead to violent and criminal behaviour.

The collaborative study of Turku PET Centre, Karolinska Institutet, and Psychiatric Hospital for Prisoners in Finland examined the brain structure and function in psychopathic prisoners and healthy volunteers. Brain structure was measured with magnetic resonance imaging. The participants also viewed violent and non-violent films while their brain activity was monitored with functional magnetic resonance imaging.

Brain areas with decreased density in psychopaths from left to right: cingulate cortex, Insula, Frontal cortex, Amygdala © University of Turku

–In psychopathic criminal offenders, the density of the brain areas involved in cognitive control and emotion regulation was compromised. When viewing violent films, these areas showed stronger reactions in psychopaths. In a large sample of healthy control participants, psychopathy-related traits were associated in similar changes in brain structure and function: The more psychopathic characteristics a person had, the more their brain resembled the brains of psychopathic criminals, explains Professor Lauri Nummenmaa from Turku PET Centre at the University of Turku, Finland.

– Structural and functional changes in the brain were focused in the areas involved in emotions and their regulation. The changes in the activity and structure of these areas can explain the callousness and impulsiveness associated with psychopathy, says Professor Jari Tiihonen from the Karolinska Institutet.

– The results show that the degree of psychopathic characteristics varies also in the general population. Having a little bit of psychopathy-related traits does not cause problems, but for about one percent of the population, psychopathy is so strong that it may lead to criminal and violent behaviour, notes Chief Psychiatrist and Docent Hannu Lauerma from the Psychiatric Hospital for Prisoners in Finland.

– Studying prisoners is difficult, but provides critical information about the neurobiology of violence and aggression. Conducting this type of a study would not have been possible without the help from the staff at Turku Prison, emphasises Nummenmaa.

The findings help to understand the biological mechanisms behind violence, and enable to plan new and more effective treatments to aggression and antisocial behaviour.  

The study was funded by the Academy of Finland, Sigrid Jusélius Foundation, the European Research Council (ERC), and Valon Vuoksi Foundation.

The results have been published in the journal Cerebral Cortex.Video of brain responses while watching a violent film


Brain Basis of Psychopathy in Criminal Offenders and General Population

Provided by University of Turku

Research Breakthrough in Understanding How Neural Systems Process And Store Information (Neuroscience)

A team of scientists from the University of Exeter and the University of Auckland have made a breakthrough in the quest to better understand how neural systems are able to process and store information.  

The researchers, including lead author Dr Kyle Wedgwood from the University of Exeter’s Living Systems Institute, have made a significant discovery in how a single cell can store electrical patterns, similar to memories.  

They compared sophisticated mathematical modelling to lab-based experiments to determine how different parameters, such as how long it takes for neuronal signals to be processed and how sensitive a cell is to external signals, affect how neural systems encode information. 

The research team found that a single neuron is able to select between different patterns, dependent on the properties of each individual stimulus.  

The research offers a new step towards developing a greater understanding of how information is encoded and stored in the brain, which could open up fresh insights into the cause and treatment of conditions such as dementia. 

The research is published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface on Wednesday, April 14th 2021. 

Dr Wedgwood, from the University of Exeter’s Living Systems Institute said: “This work highlights how mathematical analysis and wet-lab experiments can be closely integrated to shed new light on fundamental problems in neuroscience. 

“That the theoretical predictions were so readily confirmed in experiments gives us great confidence in the mathematical approach as a tool for understanding how individual cells store patterns of activity. In the long run, we hope that this is the first step to a better understanding of memory formation in neural networks.” 

According to Professor Krauskopf from the University of Auckland: “The research shows that a living neuron coupled to itself is able to sustain different patterns in response to a stimulus. This is an exciting first step towards understanding how groups of neurons are able to respond to external stimuli in a precise temporal manner.’’

“Communication between neurons occurs over large distances. The communication delay associated with this plays an important role in shaping the overall response of a network. This insight is crucial to how neural systems encode memories, which is one of the most fundamental questions in neuroscience,’’ adds Professor Tsaneva form the University of Exeter’s Living Systems Institute. 

Robust spike timing in an excitable cell with delayed feedback is published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface on Wednesday, April 14th 2021. 

Featured image: The research team found that a single neuron is able to select between different patterns, dependent on the properties of each individual stimulus. © University of Exeter

Reference: Kyle C. A. Wedgwood et al., “Robust spike timing in an excitable cell with delayed feedback”, Royal Society Publishing, 2021.

Provided by University of Exeter

Surrey Develops A Breakthrough New Simulation Platform (Computer Science)

Computer scientists from the University of Surrey have helped to create state-of-the-art software that could be used to simulate how the brain develops or cancers progress, allowing healthcare professionals to develop better treatment strategies.

Together with partners across seven international organisations, Surrey has released the BioDynaMo v1.0 – a software platform designed to create, run and visualise 3D agent-based simulations.

The open-source code is available to download from the BioDynaMo website.

Agent-based simulations are central to a wide range of research fields, from biology to business and epidemiology to economics. This powerful new platform could play a key role in unlocking exciting discoveries in a range of scientific fields.

The BioDynaMo consortium includes the University of Surrey, CERN, Newcastle University, GSI Helmholtz Center, University of Cyprus, University of Geneva, ImmunoBrain Checkpoint and SCImPULSE Foundation.

Dr Roman Bauer, Lecturer of Computer Science at the University of Surrey and spokesperson for BioDynaMo, said: “We have built the BioDynaMo platform to help scientists perform simulations of previously unimaginable scale and complexity. Our platform makes it possible to tackle challenging scientific questions – helping us understand how diseases such as COVID-19 could affect different communities across the globe.”

“We hope that the versatility and usability of this open-source software will lead to BioDynaMo becoming a standard tool for reproducible computational research.”

Dr Fons Rademakers, CERN openlab Chief Research Officer and BioDynaMo engineering leader, said: “We are proud to be bringing our expertise in computing and simulation to this exciting project as part of CERN’s knowledge transfer activities for the benefit of medical applications. We spent a lot of time and effort on the simulation engine’s scalability by using multi-threading and GPU acceleration extensively throughout the code. Also, the code quality is constantly monitored by many tests continuously executed during the development. Although this is a v1.0 release, we feel very positive about it and very sure that this is only the beginning.”

Featured image credit: gettyimages

Provided by University of Surrey

Innovative Technique Developed to Destroy Cancerous Kidney Cells (Medicine)

An innovative new technique that encourages cancer cells in the kidneys to self-destruct could revolutionise the treatment of the disease, a new study in the journal Pharmaceutics reports.

During this unique study, researchers from the University of Surrey and Sechenov First Moscow State Medical University in Russia investigated whether certain naturally occurring proteins within the body can be used to treat cancer.  

Focusing on cathepsin S, a member of the lysosomal cathepsin proteins that are known to affect cancer progression, and p21 BAX, a protein that can stimulate cell destruction, researchers found that both can be deployed simultaneously to fight cancer cells in a two-pronged ‘attack.’ They act firstly by stopping the mechanism that makes certain treatments of the disease ineffective, and secondly by effectively encouraging cancerous cells to self-destruct.  

This revolutionary approach targets two converging regulatory pathways that can sometimes be resistant to chemotherapy and has led to the development of a potential ground-breaking therapy using a novel peptide, CS-PEP1. Researchers found that this peptide inhibits both cathepsin S and its ability to break down the p21 BAX protein, resulting in the accumulation of p21 BAX, which encourages the death of cancer cells in the kidneys. The twin-track effect of this peptide can also override the molecular resistance often found during conventional chemotherapy treatment and offers a novel and effective approach in treating cancer. 

An increased focus on therapeutic cancer treatments has signalled a move away from traditional methods such as chemotherapy and radiotherapy, as therapeutic treatments have been found to cause less harm to normal cells and fewer side effects for patients. 

Professor Paul Townsend, Principal Investigator, Pro-Vice-Chancellor, and Executive Dean of the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences at the University of Surrey, said: “Kidney cancer is a very difficult type of cancer to cure; there is an increased need to think innovatively to develop new techniques. We have now discovered that proteins already in the body can be manipulated to encourage cancerous cells to die. This is an extraordinary breakthrough and insight, and can be used to potentially inform the treatment of other types of aggressive cancers, such as cancers of the breast and prostate.”

Featured image credit: Getty images

Reference: Soond, Surinder M.; Savvateeva, Lyudmila V.; Makarov, Vladimir A.; Gorokhovets, Neonila V.; Townsend, Paul A.; Zamyatnin, Andrey A., Jr. 2021. “Cathepsin S Cleaves BAX as a Novel and Therapeutically Important Regulatory Mechanism for Apoptosis” Pharmaceutics 13, no. 3: 339.

Provided by University of Surrey

Novel Diabetes Subgroups Show Differences In Biomarkers Of Inflammation (Medicine)

Chronic inflammation is increasingly a focus of research. A recent study has now identified differences in indicators of inflammation between novel diabetes subgroups. But what does this mean for the future?

Symptoms that increase with age, such as cardiovascular disease, kidney damage or dementia, are common consequences of type 2 diabetes. In addition to metabolic disorders, chronic inflammatory reactions are important causes. The inflammatory cytokines typical for this can have numerous effects on various organs. One of the consequences of this is that the organs no longer respond adequately to insulin.

A new analysis of the German Diabetes Study (GDS) from the German Diabetes Centre (DDZ) investigated the differences between individual diabetes subgroups in the biomarkers of inflammation. Biomarkers are indicators that occur in the blood or in tissue and other parts of the body and are typical for certain changes in the body such as inflammation. In the current study, 74 biomarkers covering a broad spectrum of inflammatory processes were measured in over 400 test persons. The result: the novel diabetes subgroups show a number of specific differences that could allow a better determination of the risk for diabetes-related complications.

The German Diabetes Study (GDS) previously made it possible to identify five subgroups (clusters) of diabetes with different courses: severe autoimmune diabetes (SAID), severe insulin deficient diabetes (SIDD), severe insulin resistant diabetes (SIRD), moderate obesity-related diabetes (MOD) and moderate age-related diabetes (MARD). The current study shows that these subgroups differ not only in terms of age and metabolic characteristics, but also in terms of biomarkers of inflammation. Given the critical role of inflammatory processes in diabetes-related complications, these differences may also be related to the severity of clinical courses of diabetes. “It is interesting that this study of people with newly diagnosed diabetes reveals early disorders and can thus contribute to the early detection of diabetes consequences,” said Professor Michael Roden, scientific director and board member of the DDZ. “As a result, these findings could enable early therapy in individual diabetes subgroups.”

The highest biomarker blood levels were observed in the diabetes subgroup SIRD, which is characterized by pronounced insulin resistance. This underlines the importance of overweight/obesity, which is particularly related to inflammation and insulin resistance. On the other hand, the SIDD subgroup, which is mainly characterized by insulin deficiency, had the lowest biomarker levels. “This correlation between high levels of inflammatory markers and pronounced insulin resistance indicates a particular contribution of inflammatory processes in the SIRD subgroup,” said Dr. Christian Herder, who heads the Inflammation working group at the DDZ. “It will take a few more years before we can derive a specific recommendation for diabetes therapy from these findings, but the results are extremely relevant for diabetes complications and their understanding. Future studies are needed to investigate to what extent differences in the profiles of inflammation-related biomarkers can explain the differences between the diabetes subgroups in terms of their risk of developing diabetes-related complications.”

Original publication:
Herder C., Maalmi H., Strassburger K., Zaharia OP., Ratter J., Karusheva Y., Elhadad M., Bódis K., Bongaerts B., Rathmann W., Trenkamp S., Waldenberger M., Burkart V., Szendroedi J., Roden M., GDS Group: Differences in Biomarkers of Inflammation Between Novel Subgroups of Recent-Onset Diabetes Diabetes. 2021 Feb 19;db201054. PMID: 33608423 DOI: 10.2337/db20-1054

Provided by DZD

Gigantic Flying Pterosaurs Had Spoked Vertebrae to Support Their ‘Ridiculously Long’ Necks (Paleontology)

Little is known about azhdarchid pterosaurs, gigantic flying reptiles with impressive wingspans of up to 12 meters. Cousins of dinosaurs and the largest animals ever to fly, they first appeared in the fossil record in the Late Triassic about 225 million years ago and disappeared again at the end of the Cretaceous period about 66 million years ago. One of their most notable features for such a large flighted animal was a neck longer than that of a giraffe. Now, researchers report an unexpected discovery in the journal iScience on April 14: their thin neck vertebrae got their strength from an intricate internal structure unlike anything that’s been seen before.

“One of our most important findings is the arrangement of cross-struts within the vertebral centrum,” says Dave Martill of the University of Portsmouth, UK. “It is unlike anything seen previously in a vertebra of any animal. The neural tube is placed centrally within the vertebra and is connected to the external wall via a number of thin rod-like trabeculae, radially arranged like the spokes of a bicycle wheel and helically arranged along the length of the vertebra. They even cross over like the spokes of a bicycle wheel. Evolution shaped these creatures into awesome, breathtakingly efficient flyers.”

Scientists previously thought the pterosaur’s neck had a simpler tube-within-a-tube structure, he explains. But it raised an important question: how could their thin-walled bones, needed to reduce weight in the flying reptiles, still support their bodies and allow them to capture and eat heavy prey animals?

Cariad Williams, the study’s first author, hadn’t set out to answer that question. She wanted to examine the degree of movement between each vertebra of the pterosaur’s neck.

“These animals have ridiculously long necks,” Williams says, adding that, in some species, the fifth vertebra of the neck from the head end is as long as the animal’s body. “It makes a giraffe look perfectly normal. We wanted to know a bit about how this incredibly long neck functioned, as it seems to have very little mobility between each vertebra.”

While the Moroccan pterosaur bones they study are well preserved in three dimensions, the researchers still hadn’t expected the scans to offer such a clear view of the vertebra’s intricate internal structure.

This image of a pterosaur vertebra shows the bicycle wheel-like spoke arrangement. © Williams et al.

“We did not originally CT scan it to learn about the inside; we wanted a very detailed image of the outside surface,” Martill says. “We could have got this by ordinary surface scanning, but we had an opportunity to put some specimens in a CT scanner, and it seemed churlish to turn the offer down. We were simply trying to model the degree of movement between all the vertebrae to see how the neck might perform in life.”

He adds, “What was utterly remarkable was that the internal structure was perfectly preserved–so too was the microhistology when we made some petrographic sections through the bone. As soon as we saw the intricate pattern of radial trabeculae, we realized there was something special going on. As we looked closer, we could see that they were arranged in a helix traveling up and down the vertebral tube and crossing each other like bicycle wheel spokes.”

His team realized immediately that they needed to bring in engineers to understand how the biomechanics of this unusual neck would have worked. Those analyses suggest that as few as 50 of the spoke-like trabeculae increased the amount of weight their necks could carry without buckling by 90%. Together with the basic tube-within-a-tube structure, it explains how the relatively light-weight animals could capture and carry heavy prey items without breaking their necks.

“It appears that this structure of extremely thin cervical vertebrae and added helically arranged cross-struts resolved many concerns about the biomechanics of how these creatures were able to support massive heads–longer than 1.5 meters–on necks longer than the modern-day giraffe, all whilst retaining the ability of powered flight,” Martill says.

While pterosaurs are sometimes thought of as evolutionary dead ends, Martill and colleagues say the new findings reveal them as “fantastically complex and sophisticated.” Their bones and skeletons were marvels of biology–extremely light yet strong and durable.

The researchers say there’s still much to learn in future work about pterosaurs, including seemingly basic questions about their flight abilities and feeding ecology.

Featured image: This illustration shows an artist’s rendering of a pterosaur (Alanqa saharica). © Davide Bonadonna

Reference: Williams et al.: “Helically arranged cross struts in azhdarchid pterosaur cervical vertebrae and their biomechanical implications”, iscience, 2021.

Provided by Cell Press