Duke Research Blog

Following the people and events that make up the research community at Duke.

Captive Lemurs Get a Genetic Health Checkup

DURHAM, N.C. — Careful matchmaking can restore genetic diversity for endangered lemurs in captivity, researchers report.

Ring-tailed lemurs born at the Duke Lemur Center have seen a recent infusion of new genetic material at key genes involved in the immune response, finds a new study.

Thanks to a long-term collaborative breeding program that transfers animals between institutions to preserve genetic diversity, genetic variation at one region was restored to levels seen in the wild.

The findings, published in the journal Ecology and Evolution, are important for the ability of future generations to fight disease.

Baby lemur twins Nemesis and Narcissa were the product of a breeding program developed by the American Association of Zoos and Aquariums to preserve the future genetic health of North America’s captive ring-tailed lemurs. Their mother Sophia was among 62 ring-tailed lemurs recommended for breeding across 20 institutions nationwide in 2016. Photo by David Haring, Duke Lemur Center.

Baby lemur twins Nemesis and Narcissa were the product of a breeding program developed by the American Association of Zoos and Aquariums to preserve the future genetic health of North America’s captive ring-tailed lemurs. Their mother Sophia was among 62 ring-tailed lemurs recommended for breeding across 20 institutions nationwide in 2016. Photo by David Haring, Duke Lemur Center.

Distant primate cousins with long black-and-white striped tails, ring-tailed lemurs live on the African island of Madagascar and nowhere else except in zoos and other captive facilities.

Some studies suggest that as few as 2,500 ring-tailed lemurs live in the wild today. Habit loss, hunting and the illegal pet trade have reduced their numbers by at least 50 percent in recent decades.

An additional estimated 2,500 ring-tailed lemurs live in zoos around the world, where experts work to maintain their genetic health in captivity.

The researchers studied DNA sequence variation at a region of the major histocompatibility complex, or MHC, a part of the genome that helps the immune system identify disease-causing bacteria, viruses and parasites.

Because different MHC gene variants recognize different types of pathogens, greater MHC diversity means animals are able to fend off a wider array of invaders.

The researchers estimated the number of MHC variants in 121 captive individuals born at the Duke Lemur Center and the Indianapolis and Cincinnati Zoos between 1980 and 2010.

They also compared them with 180 wild individuals from southwestern Madadgascar at the Bezà Mahafaly Special Reserve, where the animals regularly interbreed with lemurs from nearby forests.

Not surprisingly, MHC diversity was lower in captivity than in the wild.

Today’s captive ringtails came from a small group of ancestors that carried only a small fraction of the total genetic variation found in the larger wild population. Since their establishment, gene flow between captive populations and wild lemurs has been restricted.

Overall, the researchers found 20 unique MHC variants in the captive population, fewer than half the number in their wild counterparts.

However, efforts to identify good genetic matches across dozens of institutions have helped to preserve and even improve upon the diversity that is left.

For infants born at the Duke Lemur Center, MHC gene diversity remained low but stable for three decades from 1980 to 2010, then increased significantly from 2010 to 2013, researchers found.

Genetic contributions from several transplants contributed to the comeback.

An arranged marriage between ring-tailed lemurs at the Duke Lemur Center in North Carolina produced healthy twins Griselda and Hedwig in 2016. The infants are among 40 to 60 ring-tailed lemur infants born in North American zoos and other facilities each year. Photo by David Haring, Duke Lemur Center.

An arranged marriage between ring-tailed lemurs at the Duke Lemur Center in North Carolina produced healthy twins Griselda and Hedwig in 2016. The infants are among 40 to 60 ring-tailed lemur infants born in North American zoos and other facilities each year. Photo by David Haring, Duke Lemur Center.

The American Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) tries to maintain a genetically healthy population by moving animals between institutions as potential mates. A team of experts uses computer software to help pick the best pairs for breeding.

Between 1980 and 2013, more than 1,160 ring-tailed lemurs were transferred between 217 institutions in North America alone.

In 2009, a male named Randy was transferred from the Saint Louis Zoo to the Duke Lemur Center for pairing with Sprite, a resident female. Experts also brought a mother-daughter pair, Schroeder and Leisl from the Zoo at Chehaw in Georgia, as potential mates for a resident male named Aracus.

“They saw an immediate improvement in the diversity of the offspring that were born,” said lead author Kathleen Grogan, who conducted the study while working on a doctorate with co-author Christine Drea at Duke University.

Grogan and colleagues are now examining whether MHC gene diversity helps the animals live longer or produce more offspring, as has been shown for other species.

“Not only do these lemurs serve as an assurance against extinction of their Malagasy counterparts, but maintaining as many variations of genes is important for keeping the individual lemurs, as well as the population healthy for any future challenges it may face,” said AZA Species Survival Plan Coordinator Gina Ferrie, a population biologist at Disney’s Animal Kingdom.

Conserving genetic diversity in captive populations over multiple generations is challenging due to their small size and relative isolation, but careful breeding can stem the loss, said Grogan, now a postdoctoral fellow at Pennsylvania State University.

Other authors include Michelle Sauther of the University of Colorado-Boulder and Frank Cuozzo at LaJuma Research Centre in South Africa.

This research was supported by Duke University, the International Primatological Society, Primate Conservation Inc., the University of Colorado-Boulder, the University of North Dakota, the National Science Foundation (BCS 0922465, BCS-1232570, IOS-071900), the Margot Marsh Biodiversity Foundation, the St. Louis Zoo and the American Society of Primatologists.

CITATION:  “Genetic Wealth, Population Health: Major Histocompatibility Complex Variation in Captive and Wild Ring-Tailed Lemurs (Lemur Catta),” Kathleen Grogan, Michelle Sauther, Frank Cuozzo and Christine Drea. Ecology and Evolution, Date. DOI: 10.1002/ece3.3317

A Summer Well-Spent In and Around Toxic Waste Sites

Edison, NJ is just 40 miles from Manhattan and 70 miles from Philadelphia. It’s also home to the US EPA’s Emergency Response Team (ERT), where I spent the summer as an intern.

Stella Wang and an EPA contractor used lifts to test oil being pumped out of these huge tanks. It was found to be contaminated with mercury, benzene and lead.

At the start of my internship, I had little idea of how ERT functioned. Unlike the 10 regional offices of the Environmental Protection Agency, ERT is a “headquarters” or Washington, DC-based group, which means it responds to incidents all over the country such as oil spills, train derailments, and natural disasters.

For example, my mentor, an air specialist who generally works from his cubicle in Edison, aided in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina by employing equipment to analyze air for hazardous pollutants. Other ERT team members have conducted sediment sampling to expedite the hazardous waste removal process, given consultation advice to other EPA members for long-term remedial site work, and led the innovation of new technology.

I was able to shadow and help my mentor and fellow ERT members with their Superfund site removal work. I created accurate maps showing injection well locations, learned how to use air monitoring instruments, and helped perform chemical lab experiments that will be employed for future site analysis.

Perhaps my favorite part of the internship was traveling to a myriad of active sites. At these sites, I not only got to see how ERT members worked with EPA’s on-scene coordinators, but also observed the physical removal and remediation processes. I was fortunate to visit a particular site multiple times — I witnessed the removal of contaminated oil from an abandoned lot as the summer progressed.

Stella Wang (left) and an EPA air specialist calibrating a air monitoring instrument before a public event.

At another site, I saw the beginning of an injection process intended to prevent the contamination of underground drinking water by hexavalent chromium. By pumping sodium lactate into underground wells, the hexavalent is converted into the insoluble and benign chromium-3 ion. If the injection process works, the community will no longer be threatened by this particular hazardous material.

ERT also acts in anticipation of possible contamination to protect the public. At largely attended events like the Democratic National Convention, a few ERT members will arrive with monitoring equipment. They pride themselves in their real-time data collection for a reason: throughout the event, they can detect whether a contaminant has been released and immediately instigate an emergency response to protect attendees.

Thanks to various ERT members, I felt accepted and welcome. They were open and patient with my never-ending questions about their career paths and other things. They’ve graciously taken me out to lunch so that they could get to know me better, ensuring my inclusion in their small community.

Of course, the experiences I had this summer, while brief, have taught me a tremendous amount and I have a clearer sense of how this division of the US federal government functions. But, it would be inaccurate and unjust to omit the impact that its people made on me.

Stella Wang, Duke 2019Guest post by Stella Wang, Class of 2019

Pinpointing Where Durham’s Nicotine Addicts Get Their Fix

DURHAM, N.C. — It’s been five years since Durham expanded its smoking ban beyond bars and restaurants to include public parks, bus stops, even sidewalks.

While smoking in the state overall may be down, 19 percent of North Carolinians still light up, particularly the poor and those without a high school or college diploma.

Among North Carolina teens, consumption of electronic cigarettes in particular more than doubled between 2013 and 2015.

Now, new maps created by students in the Data+ summer research program show where nicotine addicts can get their fix.

Studies suggest that tobacco retailers are disproportionately located in low-income neighborhoods.

Living in a neighborhood with easy access to stores that sell tobacco makes it easier to start young and harder to quit.

The end result is that smoking, secondhand smoke exposure, and smoking-related diseases such as lung cancer, are concentrated among the most socially disadvantaged communities.

If you’re poor and lack a high school or college diploma, you’re more likely to live near a store that sells tobacco.

If you’re poor and lack a high school or college diploma, you’re more likely to live near a store that sells tobacco. Photo from Pixabay.

Where stores that sell tobacco are located matters for health, but for many states such data are hard to come by, said Duke statistics major James Wang.

Tobacco products bring in more than a third of in-store sales revenue at U.S. convenience stores — more than food, beverages, candy, snacks or beer. Despite big profits, more than a dozen states don’t require businesses to get a special license or permit to sell tobacco. North Carolina is one of them.

For these states, there is no convenient spreadsheet from the local licensing agency identifying all the businesses that sell tobacco, said Duke undergraduate Nikhil Pulimood. Previous attempts to collect such data in Virginia involved searching for tobacco retail stores by car.

“They had people physically drive across every single road in the state to collect the data. It took three years,” said team member and Duke undergraduate Felicia Chen.

Led by UNC PhD student in epidemiology Mike Dolan Fliss, the Duke team tried to come up with an easier way.

Instead of collecting data on the ground, they wrote an automated web-crawler program to extract the data from the Yellow Pages websites, using a technique called Web scraping.

By telling the software the type of business and location, they were able to create a database that included the names, addresses, phone numbers and other information for 266 potential tobacco retailers in Durham County and more than 15,500 statewide, including chains such as Family Fare, Circle K and others.

Map showing the locations of tobacco retail stores in Durham County, North Carolina.

Map showing the locations of tobacco retail stores in Durham County, North Carolina.

When they compared their web-scraped data with a pre-existing dataset for Durham County, compiled by a nonprofit called Counter Tools, hundreds of previously hidden retailers emerged on the map.

To determine which stores actually sold tobacco, they fed a computer algorithm data from more than 19,000 businesses outside North Carolina so it could learn how to distinguish say, convenience stores from grocery stores. When the algorithm received store names from North Carolina, it predicted tobacco retailers correctly 85 percent of the time.

“For example we could predict that if a store has the word “7-Eleven” in it, it probably sells tobacco,” Chen said.

As a final step, they also crosschecked their results by paying people a small fee to search for the stores online to verify that they exist, and call them to ask if they actually sell tobacco, using a crowdsourcing service called Amazon Mechanical Turk.

Ultimately, the team hopes their methods will help map the more than 336,000 tobacco retailers nationwide.

“With a complete dataset for tobacco retailers around the nation, public health experts will be able to see where tobacco retailers are located relative to parks and schools, and how store density changes from one neighborhood to another,” Wang said.

The team presented their work at the Data+ Final Symposium on July 28 in Gross Hall.

Data+ is sponsored by Bass Connections, the Information Initiative at Duke, the Social Science Research Institute, the departments of mathematics and statistical science and MEDx. This project team was also supported by Counter Tools, a non-profit based in Carrboro, NC.

Writing by Robin Smith; video by Lauren Mueller and Summer Dunsmore

Sizing Up Hollywood’s Gender Gap

DURHAM, N.C. — A mere seven-plus decades after she first appeared in comic books in the early 1940s, Wonder Woman finally has her own movie.

In the two months since it premiered, the film has brought in more than $785 million worldwide, making it the highest grossing movie of the summer.

But if Hollywood has seen a number of recent hits with strong female leads, from “Wonder Woman” and “Atomic Blonde” to “Hidden Figures,” it doesn’t signal a change in how women are depicted on screen — at least not yet.

Those are the conclusions of three students who spent ten weeks this summer compiling and analyzing data on women’s roles in American film, through the Data+ summer research program.

The team relied on a measure called the Bechdel test, first depicted by the cartoonist Alison Bechdel in 1985.

Bechdel test

The “Bechdel test” asks whether a movie features at least two women who talk to each other about anything besides a man. Surprisingly, a lot of films fail. Art by Srravya [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons.

To pass the Bechdel test, a movie must satisfy three basic requirements: it must have at least two named women in it, they must talk to each other, and their conversation must be about something other than a man.

It’s a low bar. The female characters don’t have to have power, or purpose, or buck gender stereotypes.

Even a movie in which two women only speak to each other briefly in one scene, about nail polish — as was the case with “American Hustle” —  gets a passing grade.

And yet more than 40 percent of all U.S. films fail.

The team used data from the bechdeltest.com website, a user-compiled database of over 7,000 movies where volunteers rate films based on the Bechdel criteria. The number of criteria a film passes adds up to its Bechdel score.

“Spider Man,” “The Jungle Book,” “Star Trek Beyond” and “The Hobbit” all fail by at least one of the criteria.

Films are more likely to pass today than they were in the 1970s, according to a 2014 study by FiveThirtyEight, the data journalism site created by Nate Silver.

The authors of that study analyzed 1,794 movies released between 1970 and 2013. They found that the number of passing films rose steadily from 1970 to 1995 but then began to stall.

In the past two decades, the proportion of passing films hasn’t budged.

Since the mid-1990s, the proportion of films that pass the Bechdel test has flatlined at about 50 percent.

Since the mid-1990s, the proportion of films that pass the Bechdel test has flatlined at about 50 percent.

The Duke team was also able to obtain data from a 2016 study of the gender breakdown of movie dialogue in roughly 2,000 screenplays.

Men played two out of three top speaking roles in more than 80 percent of films, according to that study.

Using data from the screenplay study, the students plotted the relationship between a movie’s Bechdel score and the number of words spoken by female characters. Perhaps not surprisingly, films with higher Bechdel scores were also more likely to achieve gender parity in terms of speaking roles.

“The Bechdel test doesn’t really tell you if a film is feminist,” but it’s a good indicator of how much women speak, said team member Sammy Garland, a Duke sophomore majoring in statistics and Chinese.

Previous studies suggest that men do twice as much talking in most films — a proportion that has remained largely unchanged since 1995. The reason, researchers say, is not because male characters are more talkative individually, but because there are simply more male roles.

“To close the gap of speaking time, we just need more female characters,” said team member Selen Berkman, a sophomore majoring in math and computer science.

Achieving that, they say, ultimately comes down to who writes the script and chooses the cast.

The team did a network analysis of patterns of collaboration among 10,000 directors, writers and producers. Two people are joined whenever they worked together on the same movie. The 13 most influential and well-connected people in the American film industry were all men, whose films had average Bechdel scores ranging from 1.5 to 2.6 — meaning no top producer is regularly making films that pass the Bechdel test.

“What this tells us is there is no one big influential producer who is moving the needle. We have no champion,” Garland said.

Men and women were equally represented in fewer than 10 percent of production crews.

But assembling a more gender-balanced production team in the early stages of a film can make a difference, research shows. Films with more women in top production roles have female characters who speak more too.

“To better represent women on screen you need more women behind the scenes,” Garland said.

Dollar for dollar, making an effort to close the Hollywood gender gap can mean better returns at the box office too. Films that pass the Bechdel test earn $2.68 for every dollar spent, compared with $2.45 for films that fail — a 23-cent better return on investment, according to FiveThirtyEight.

Other versions of the Bechdel test have been proposed to measure race and gender in film more broadly. The advantage of analyzing the Bechdel data is that thousands of films have already been scored, said English major and Data+ team member Aaron VanSteinberg.

“We tried to watch a movie a week, but we just didn’t have time to watch thousands of movies,” VanSteinberg said.

A new report on diversity in Hollywood from the University of Southern California suggests the same lack of progress is true for other groups as well. In nearly 900 top-grossing films from 2007 to 2016, disabled, Latino and LGBTQ characters were consistently underrepresented relative to their makeup in the U.S. population.

Berkman, Garland and VanSteinberg were among more than 70 students selected for the 2017 Data+ program, which included data-driven projects on photojournalism, art restoration, public policy and more.

They presented their work at the Data+ Final Symposium on July 28 in Gross Hall.

Data+ is sponsored by Bass Connections, the Information Initiative at Duke, the Social Science Research Institute, the departments of mathematics and statistical science and MEDx. 

Writing by Robin Smith; video by Lauren Mueller and Summer Dunsmore

Mapping Electricity Access for a Sixth of the World’s People

DURHAM, N.C. — Most Americans can charge their cell phones, raid the fridge or boot up their laptops at any time without a second thought.

Not so for the 1.2 billion people — roughly 16 percent of the world’s population — with no access to electricity.

Despite improvements over the past two decades, an estimated 780 million people will still be without power by 2030, especially in rural parts of sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and the Pacific.

To get power to these people, first officials need to locate them. But for much of the developing world, reliable, up-to-date data on electricity access is hard to come by.

Researchers say remote sensing can help.

For ten weeks from May through July, a team of Duke students in the Data+ summer research program worked on developing ways to assess electricity access automatically, using satellite imagery.

“Ground surveys take a lot of time, money and manpower,” said Data+ team member Ben Brigman. “As it is now, the only way to figure out if a village has electricity is to send someone out there to check. You can’t call them up or put out an online poll, because they won’t be able to answer.”

India at night

Satellite image of India at night. Large parts of the Indian countryside still aren’t connected to the grid, but remote sensing, machine learning could help pinpoint people living without power. Credits: NASA Earth Observatory images by Joshua Stevens, using Suomi NPP VIIRS data from Miguel Román, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

Led by researchers in the Energy Data Analytics Lab and the Sustainable Energy Transitions Initiative, “the initial goal was to create a map of India, showing every village or town that does or does not have access to electricity,” said team member Trishul Nagenalli.

Electricity makes it possible to pump groundwater for crops, refrigerate food and medicines, and study or work after dark. But in parts of rural India, where Nagenalli’s parents grew up, many households use kerosene lamps to light homes at night, and wood or animal dung as cooking fuel.

Fires from overturned kerosene lamps are not uncommon, and indoor air pollution from cooking with solid fuels contributes to low birth weight, pneumonia and other health problems.

In 2005, the Indian government set out to provide electricity to all households within five years. Yet a quarter of India’s population still lives without power.

Ultimately, the goal is to create a machine learning algorithm — basically a set of instructions for a computer to follow — that can recognize power plants, irrigated fields and other indicators of electricity in satellite images, much like the algorithms that recognize your face on Facebook.

Rather than being programmed with specific instructions, machine learning algorithms “learn” from large amounts of data.

This summer the researchers focused on the unsung first step in the process: preparing the training data.

Phoenix power plant

Satellite image of a power plant in Phoenix, Arizona

Fellow Duke students Gouttham Chandrasekar, Shamikh Hossain and Boning Li were also part of the effort. First they compiled publicly available satellite images of U.S. power plants. Rather than painstakingly framing and labeling the plants in each photo themselves, they tapped the powers of the Internet to outsource the task and hired other people to annotate the images for them, using a crowdsourcing service called Amazon Mechanical Turk.

So far, they have collected more than 8,500 image annotations of different kinds of power plants, including oil, natural gas, hydroelectric and solar.

The team also compiled firsthand observations of the electrification rate for more than 36,000 villages in the Indian state of Bihar, which has one of the lowest electrification rates in the country. For each village, they also gathered satellite images showing light intensity at night, along with density of green land and other indicators of irrigated farms, as proxies for electricity consumption.

Using these data sets, the goal is to develop a computer algorithm which, through machine learning, teaches itself to detect similar features in unlabeled images, and distinguishes towns and villages that are connected to the grid from those that aren’t.

“We would like to develop our final algorithm to essentially go into a developing country and analyze whether or not a community there has access to electricity, and if so what kind,” Chandrasekar said.

Electrification map of Bihar, India

The proportion of households connected to the grid in more than 36,000 villages in Bihar, India

The project is far from finished. During the 2017-2018 school year, a Bass Connections team will continue to build on their work.

The summer team presented their research at the Data+ Final Symposium on July 28 in Gross Hall.

Data+ is sponsored by Bass Connections, the Information Initiative at Duke, the Social Science Research Institute, the departments of mathematics and statistical science and MEDx. This project team was also supported by the Duke University Energy Initiative.

Writing by Robin Smith; video by Lauren Mueller and Summer Dunsmore

Not Your Basic Bench: Zebrafish Reveal Secrets of the Developing Gut

Our intestine is a highly complex organ – a tortuous, rugged channel built of many specialized cell-types and coated with a protective, slimy matrix. Yet the intestine begins as a simple tube consisting of a central lumen lined by a sheet of epithelial cells, which are smooth cells that lie on the surface of the lumen. These intestinal epithelial cells are central players in many human diseases.

A portrait of Daniel Levic

Daniel Levic, a postdoctoral research associate in the department of cell biology at the Duke University Medical Center.

Daniel Levic of the Bagnat Lab is using zebrafish as experimental models to understand how intestines are formed in hopes of finding new ways to combat disease. He wants to learn how the intestinal lumen forms during early development, and how intestinal epithelial cells take on their physiological functions.

Levic, a postdoctoral research associate in the department of cell biology at the Duke University Medical Center, focuses on projects in both basic and translational science. Daniel uses zebrafish to analyze the formation of the lumen and the polarity of epithelial cells — how specialized they are for carrying out different functions —  at the genetic and cellular level. He focuses on how membrane proteins are sorted into different, specialized domains of the cell surface and how this process affects intestinal formation. Additionally, Daniel studies how inflammation is evaded in intestinal epithelial cells in Crohn’s disease using a combination of patient biopsy samples and animal studies in zebrafish. This project is a collaborative effort aided by clinicians and human geneticists at the Duke University Medical Center.

A microscope image of a zebrafish gut

The developing gut of a zebrafish, magnified.

Though complex human diseases can’t be fully mimicked in animal models like zebrafish, this type of research can be extremely useful. These model organisms can be used to study the basic, fundamental cellular mechanisms that ultimately underlie disease. An example is Daniel’s work on Crohn’s disease, where he is trying to understand how inflammatory signaling networks become activated, specifically in intestinal epithelial cells. This problem is difficult, if not impossible, to address using exclusively human biopsy samples.

Overall, Daniel hopes that his translational research will provide new knowledge of the role of intestinal epithelial cells in Crohn’s disease and provide biomarkers that will aid clinicians in predicting how patients will respond to therapeutic interventions. Daniel’s research and basic science research are rapidly changing the way we diagnose disease, treat patients, and interact with the world around us.

Guest post by Vaishnavi Siripurapu

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