Working to better forecast the size of future earthquakes and tsunamis! Science Now 29

♫MUSIC♫ DENA HEADLEE: The continued spread of worldwide hunger and the cost of food are expected to increase in the coming years. Researchers are working hard to find ways to increase crop yields. A National Science Foundation-funded team of scientists at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory has found a way to harness Mother Nature. They discovered a set of gene variations that can boost fruit production in the tomato plant by as much as 100 percent. Team leader Zachary Lippman says this genetic toolkit will enable plant breeders to combine different gene variants among the set by customizing and creating the perfect plant structure for particular varieties and growing conditions. By fine-tuning the balance between florigen and anti-florigen, hormones that control vegetative growth and flowering in tomatoes, breeders will have a powerful new toolkit for achieving previously unattainable increases in plant production. Today, approximately 10 million children have difficulties learning to read. Researchers from Carnegie Mellon University are hoping their new computer model will help someday. The team has identified what different regions of the brain are doing when people read. They performed functional magnetic resonance imaging scans of eight people as they read. Studying the scan cubic millimeter by cubic millimeter over a full chapter of reading resulted in the first integrated computational model of reading. The model identified which parts of the brain are responsible for analyzing sentences, determining the meaning of words and understanding the relationships between characters. Exactly how the brain creates this neural encoding is still a mystery, the team says, but the model is the beginning of understanding what the brain is doing when a person reads. While it still needs fine tuning, the team thinks the model might someday be useful in studying and diagnosing reading disorders, such as dyslexia, or to track the recovery of patients whose speech was impaired by a stroke. More than 1.6 million people in the U.S. have some type of limb loss issue. While powered lower limb prosthetics hold promise for improving the mobility of amputees, errors in the technology may also cause some users to stumble and fall. National Science Foundation-funded researchers at North Carolina State University are working to find ways to make a more reliable prosthesis. The team is developing technology that translates electrical signals in human muscles into user intent that further controls powered prosthetic limbs; such as decoding muscle signals to tell a prosthetic leg that it needs to walk forward or step up onto a staircase. The team had study subjects use a customized prosthetic device that was programmed to make decoding errors and monitored their movement in the lab. They found that while some unnoticeable errors occurred, the critical errors were characterized by large “mechanical work change,” meaning prosthetic limb thought it had to do significantly more or less work than the user intended. The result was an unstable prosthesis that caused the user to lose their balance or fall. The team hopes to find ways to limit the mechanical work change, making the prosthetics more efficient, reliable, and safe to use. In 2012, Costa Rica was pummeled by a 7.6 magnitude earthquake, one of the strongest ever to hit the Central American nation. Without enough advance warning, natural disasters like this can be devastating. A National Science Foundation-funded international team of scientists lead by the University of South Florida has found a way to help better forecast the size of future disasters like this. The team found that subtle shifts in the earth’s offshore plates can be a harbinger of the size of the earthquake or tsunamis. The geological phenomenon called “slow slip events,” identified just 15 years ago, is a useful tool in spotting the precursors for major earthquakes and the resulting tsunamis. Slow slip events are caused by motion on faults but unlike earthquakes, they release their energy slowly, over weeks or months. These events can’t be felt or even recorded by conventional seismographs. USF geologist Tim Dixon and his team used high precision GPS to measure the slight shifts on a fault line in Costa Rica. The GPS recorded numerous slow slip events in the decade leading up to the 2012 earthquake. The team says these slow slip events may have released much of the stress and strain that would normally occur, resulting only in a small tsunami following the quake. The team believes that better monitoring of these small events can lead to better understanding of maximum size and risk associated with future earthquakes and tsunamis. For more information about these stories, visit us at This is NSF Science Now, I’m Dena Headlee. ♫MUSIC♫

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