Research Roundup: Archaea proteins, phone app increases physical activity, nature unable to protect humans


Each week, The Daily’s Science & Tech section produces a roundup of the most exciting and influential research happening on campus or otherwise related to Stanford. Here’s our digest for the week of Oct. 6 – Oct. 12.

Archaea proteins give insight into historical ocean temperatures

Stanford scientists have identified proteins that archaea microbes use to strengthen their membrane when ocean temperatures increase, a study published on Oct. 7 in “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences” found. With this finding, scientists have the ability to use archaea membranes to estimate ocean temperatures millions of years ago. Archaea are a domain of single-cellular organisms that are abundant in oceans.

Led by Paula Welander, associate professor of earth system science, the team is investigating which proteins are used by the archaea Sulfolobus acidocaldarius to attach “ring-like pieces” to its membrane, a process that increases the stability of the membrane under stressful conditions such as rising water temperatures. 

The researchers identified two genes crucial to this process. Understanding the mechanism behind protein archaea membranes could lead to real-world applications in biochemistry, such as drug discovery and advances in material science, according to Welander.

“Microbes invent all kinds of weird biochemistry to do all kinds of weird reactions,” Welander told Stanford News. “Anytime you can expand that chemistry of what is possible, it’s really exciting from just a basic science perspective.”

Smartphone app increases physical activity

A smartphone app can increase physical activity among participants by giving daily notifications, Stanford researchers discovered in a study published on Oct. 3 in “Lancet Digital Health.” This first-ever digital randomized clinical trial sought to determine whether a smartphone app is enough to encourage people to exercise more. The team observed roughly a 10% increase in physical activity compared to participants’ baselines. 

The study, led by Euan Ashley, professor in medicine, genetics and biomedical data science, used a smartphone app called MyHeart Counts, which was first made available in 2015. The app tracks physical activity and heart-related information, such as heart rate.

“In this digital era, we have to think of ways to engage people in their health,” Ashley told Stanford Medicine News. “The number of smartphone users these days is huge, and using an app to host the trial lets us tap into that population. If people are addicted to their phones, maybe we can also get them addicted to their health.”

The digital trial assigned one out of four basic interventions for the participant enrolled. Reminders to walk or stand up were presented to participants on a weekly basis. 

In the span of 18 months, the clinical trial enrolled 1,075 participants who completed at least one intervention, and 493 participants completed the entire trial. As this trial is the first of its kind, it may serve as the template for future digital-randomized clinical trials moving forward.

Nature increasingly unable to shield humans from natural disaster

Humans rely on nature in many instances, such as wetlands removing chemical runoff to protect a community’s water source, to bees pollinating vast vegetables and crops. An interactive global map created by Stanford researchers depicts nature’s declining ability to protect humans from disasters such as water pollution, coastal storms and under-pollinated crops.

The study, published on Oct. 10 in “Science,” was led by Becky Chaplin-Kramer, a scientist at Stanford’s Natural Capital Project, a group that studies interactions between humans and nature, and how this relationship will change as climate change progresses. The researchers focused on three benefits nature currently provides for humans: water quality, protection from coastal hazards and crop pollination.

The study estimates that by 2050, 5 billion people could be subjected to a higher risk of these calamities such as water pollution, coastal storms and under-pollinated crops. Populations in Africa and South Asia are reportedly most at risk if nature continues to decline in its ability to protect humans.

“We hope that this work will advance the integration of nature’s contributions to people into decision making and further galvanize global action,” Chaplin-Kramer told Stanford News. “We’re equipped with the information we need to avert the worst scenarios our models project and move toward an equitable, sustainable future. Now is the time to wield it.”

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