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‘Bandit-masked’ feathered dinosaur hid from predators using multiple types of camouflage

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Researchers from the University of Bristol have revealed how a small feathered dinosaur used its colour patterning, including a bandit mask-like stripe across its eyes, to avoid being detected by its predators and prey.

By reconstructing the likely colour patterning of the Chinese dinosaur Sinosauropteryx, researchers have shown that it had multiple types of camouflage which likely helped it to avoid being eaten in a world full of larger meat-eating dinosaurs, including relatives of the infamous Tyrannosaurus Rex, as well as potentially allowing it to sneak up more easily on its own prey.

Fiann Smithwick from the University’s School of Earth Sciences led the work,  He said: “Far from all being the lumbering prehistoric grey beasts of past children’s books, at least some dinosaurs showed sophisticated colour patterns to hide from and confuse predators, just like  animals.

“Vision was likely very important in dinosaurs, just like today’s birds, and so it is not surprising that they evolved elaborate colour patterns.” The colour patterns also allowed the team to identify the likely habitat in which the dinosaur lived 130 million years ago.

The work involved mapping out how dark pigmented feathers were distributed across the body and revealed some distinctive colour patterns.

These colour patterns can also be seen in modern animals where they serve as different types of camouflage.

The patterns include a dark stripe around the eye, or ‘bandit mask’, which in modern birds helps to hide the eye from would-be predators, and a striped tail that may have been used to confuse both predators and prey.

Senior author, Dr Jakob Vinther, added: “Dinosaurs might be weird in our eyes, but their colour patterns very much resemble modern counterparts.

“They had excellent vision, were fierce predators and would have evolved camouflage patterns like we see in living mammals and birds.”

The small dinosaur also showed a ‘counter-shaded’ pattern with a dark back and light belly; a pattern used by many modern animals to make the body look flatter and less 3D.

This stops animals standing out from their background, making them harder to spot, avoiding detection from would-be predators and potential prey.

Previous work on modern animals, carried out by one of the authors, Bristol’s Professor Innes Cuthill, has shown that the precise pattern of countershading relates to the specific environments in which animals live.

Animals living in open habitats, such as savannahs, often have a counter-shaded pattern that goes from dark to light sharply and high on the side of the body, while those living in more closed habitats, like forests, usually change from dark to light much lower and more gradually.

This principal was applied to Sinosauropteryx, and allowed for the reconstruction of its habitat 130 million years ago. The countershading on Sinosauropteryx went from dark to light high on the body, suggesting that it would be more likely to live in open habitats with minimal vegetation.

Behavioural ecologist Professor Cuthill, who was also a co-author of this study, said: “We’ve shown before that countershading can act as effective camouflage against living predators. It’s exciting that we can now use the colours of extinct animals to predict the sort of environment they lived in.”

Fiann Smithwick added: “By reconstructing the colour of these long-extinct dinosaurs, we have gained a better understanding of not only how they behaved and possible predator-prey dynamics, but also the environments in which they lived.

“This highlights how palaeocolour reconstructions can tell us things not possible from looking at just the bones of these animals.”

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Scientists detect comets outside our solar system

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Scientists from MIT and other institutions, working closely with amateur astronomers, have spotted the dusty tails of six exocomets  comets outside our solar system  orbiting a faint star 800 light years from Earth.

These cosmic balls of ice and dust, which were about the size of Halley’s Comet and traveled about 100,000 miles per hour before they ultimately vaporized, are some of the smallest objects yet found outside our own solar system.

The discovery marks the first time that an object as small as a comet has been detected using transit photometry, a technique by which astronomers observe a star’s light for telltale dips in intensity. Such dips signal potential transits, or crossings of planets or other objects in front of a star, which momentarily block a small fraction of its light.

In the case of this new detection, the researchers were able to pick out the comet’s tail, or trail of gas and dust, which blocked about one-tenth of 1 percent of the star’s light as the comet streaked by.

“It’s amazing that something several orders of magnitude smaller than the Earth can be detected just by the fact that it’s emitting a lot of debris,” says Saul Rappaport, professor emeritus of physics in MIT’s Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research. “It’s pretty impressive to be able to see something so small, so far away.”

“Where few have traveled”

The detection was made using data from NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope, a stellar observatory that was launched into space in 2009. For four years, the spacecraft monitored about 200,000 stars for dips in starlight caused by transiting exoplanets.

To date, the mission has identified and confirmed more than 2,400 exoplanets, mostly orbiting stars in the constellation Cygnus, with the help of automated algorithms that quickly sift through Kepler’s data, looking for characteristic dips in starlight.

The smallest exoplanets detected thus far measure about one-third the size of the Earth. Comets, in comparison, span just several football fields, or a small city at their largest, making them incredibly difficult to spot.

However, on March 18, Jacobs, an amateur astronomer who has made it his hobby to comb through Kepler’s data, was able to pick out several curious light patterns amid the noise.

Jacobs, who works as an employment consultant for people with intellectual disabilities by day, is a member of the Planet Hunters — a citizen scientist project first established by Yale University to enlist amateur astronomers in the search for exoplanets. Members were given access to Kepler’s data in hopes that they might spot something of interest that a computer might miss.

In January, Jacobs set out to scan the entire four years of Kepler’s data taken during the main mission, comprising over 200,000 stars, each with individual light curves, or graphs of light intensity tracked over time. Jacobs spent five months sifting by eye through the data, often before and after his day job, and through the weekends.

“Looking for objects of interest in the Kepler data requires patience, persistence, and perseverance,” Jacobs says. “For me it is a form of treasure hunting, knowing that there is an interesting event waiting to be discovered. It is all about exploration and being on the hunt where few have traveled before.”

“Something we’ve seen before”

Jacobs’ goal was to look for anything out of the ordinary that computer algorithms may have passed over. In particular, he was searching for single transits — dips in starlight that happen only once, meaning they are not periodic like planets orbiting a star multiple times.

In his search, he spotted three such single transits around KIC 3542116, a faint star located 800 light years from Earth (the other three transits were found later by the team). He flagged the events and alerted Rappaport and Vanderburg, with whom he had collaborated in the past to interpret his findings.

“We sat on this for a month, because we didn’t know what it was — planet transits don’t look like this,” Rappaport recalls. “Then it occurred to me that, ‘Hey, these look like something we’ve seen before.'”

In a typical planetary transit, the resulting light curve resembles a “U,” with a sharp dip, then an equally sharp rise, as a result of a planet first blocking a little, then a lot, then a little of the light as it moves across the star. However, the light curves that Jacobs identified appeared asymmetric, with a sharp dip, followed by a more gradual rise.

Rappaport realized that the asymmetry in the light curves resembled disintegrating planets, with long trails of debris that would continue to block a bit of light as the planet moves away from the star. However, such disintegrating planets orbit their star, transiting repeatedly. In contrast, Jacobs had observed no such periodic pattern in the transits he identified.

“We thought, the only kind of body that could do the same thing and not repeat is one that probably gets destroyed in the end,” Rappaport says.

In other words, instead of orbiting around and around the star, the objects must have transited, then ultimately flown too close to the star, and vaporized.

“The only thing that fits the bill, and has a small enough mass to get destroyed, is a comet,” Rappaport says.

The researchers calculated that each comet blocked about one-tenth of 1 percent of the star’s light. To do this for several months before disappearing, the comet likely disintegrated entirely, creating a dust trail thick enough to block out that amount of starlight.

Vanderburg says the fact that these six exocomets appear to have transited very close to their star in the past four years raises some intriguing questions, the answers to which could reveal some truths about our own solar system.

“Why are there so many comets in the inner parts of these solar systems?” Vanderburg says. “Is this an extreme bombardment era in these systems? That was a really important part of our own solar system formation and may have brought water to Earth. Maybe studying exocomets and figuring out why they are found around this type of star … could give us some insight into how bombardment happens in other solar systems.”

The researchers say that in the future, the MIT-led Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) mission will continue the type of research done by Kepler.

Apart from contributing to the fields of astrophysics and astronomy, Rappaport says, the new detection speaks to the perseverence and discernment of citizen scientists.

“I could name 10 types of things these people have found in the Kepler data that algorithms could not find, because of the pattern-recognition capability in the human eye,” Rappaport says. “You could now write a computer algorithm to find this kind of comet shape. But they were missed in earlier searches. They were deep enough but didn’t have the right shape that was programmed into algorithms. I think it’s fair to say this would never have been found by any algorithm.”

Martian landscapes formed from sand ‘levitating’ on a little boiling water

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Scientists from The Open University (OU) have discovered a process that could explain the long-debated mystery of how land features on Mars are formed in the absence of significant amounts of water.

Experiments carried out in the OU Mars Simulation Chamber — specialised equipment, which is able to simulate the atmospheric conditions on Mars — reveal that Mars’ thin atmosphere (about 7 mbar — compared to 1,000 mbar on Earth) combined with periods of relatively warm surface temperatures causes water flowing on the surface to violently boil. This process can then move large amounts of sand and other sediment, which effectively ‘levitates’ on the boiling water.

This means that, in comparison to Planet Earth, relatively small amounts of liquid water moving across Mars’ surface could form the large dune flows, gullies and other features, which characterise the Red Planet.

“Whilst planetary scientists already know that the surface of Mars has ‘mass-wasting’ features — such as dune flows, gullies, and recurring slope lineae — which occur as a result of sediment transportation down a slope, the debate about what is forming them continues.

“Our research has discovered that this levitation effect caused by boiling water under low pressure enables the rapid transport of sand and sediment across the surface. This is a new geological phenomenon, which doesn’t happen on Earth, and could be vital to understanding similar processes on other planetary surfaces.”

Dr Raack conducted these experiments in the Hypervelocity Impact (HVI) Laboratory based at the OU. He added:

“The sources of this liquid water will require more observational studies; however, the research shows that the effects of relatively small amounts of water on Mars in forming features on the surface may have been widely underestimated.

“We need to carry out more research into how water levitates on Mars, and missions such as the ESA ExoMars 2020 Rover will provide vital insight to help us better understand our closest neighbour.”

 

Small asteroid or comet ‘visits’ from beyond the solar system

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A small, recently discovered asteroid or perhaps a comet  appears to have originated from outside the solar system, coming from somewhere else in our galaxy. If so, it would be the first “interstellar object” to be observed and confirmed by astronomers.

This unusual object — for now designated A/2017 U1 — is less than a quarter-mile (400 meters) in diameter and is moving remarkably fast. Astronomers are urgently working to point telescopes around the world and in space at this notable object. Once these data are obtained and analyzed, astronomers may know more about the origin and possibly composition of the object.

A/2017 U1 was discovered Oct. 19 by the University of Hawaii’s Pan-STARRS 1 telescope on Haleakala, Hawaii, during the course of its nightly search for near-Earth objects for NASA. Rob Weryk, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy (IfA), was first to identify the moving object and submit it to the Minor Planet Center. Weryk subsequently searched the Pan-STARRS image archive and found it also was in images taken the previous night, but was not initially identified by the moving object processing.

Weryk immediately realized this was an unusual object. “Its motion could not be explained using either a normal solar system asteroid or comet orbit,” he said. Weryk contacted IfA graduate Marco Micheli, who had the same realization using his own follow-up images taken at the European Space Agency’s telescope on Tenerife in the Canary Islands. But with the combined data, everything made sense. Said Weryk, “This object came from outside our solar system.”

“This is the most extreme orbit I have ever seen,” said Davide Farnocchia, a scientist at NASA’s Center for Near-Earth Object Studies (CNEOS) at the agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “It is going extremely fast and on such a trajectory that we can say with confidence that this object is on its way out of the solar system and not coming back.”

The CNEOS team plotted the object’s current trajectory and even looked into its future. A/2017 U1 came from the direction of the constellation Lyra, cruising through interstellar space at a brisk clip of 15.8 miles (25.5 kilometers) per second.

The object approached our solar system from almost directly “above” the ecliptic, the approximate plane in space where the planets and most asteroids orbit the Sun, so it did not have any close encounters with the eight major planets during its plunge toward the Sun. On Sept. 2, the small body crossed under the ecliptic plane just inside of Mercury’s orbit and then made its closest approach to the Sun on Sept. 9. Pulled by the Sun’s gravity, the object made a hairpin turn under our solar system, passing under Earth’s orbit on Oct. 14 at a distance of about 15 million miles (24 million kilometers) — about 60 times the distance to the Moon. It has now shot back up above the plane of the planets and, travelling at 27 miles per second (44 kilometers per second) with respect to the Sun, the object is speeding toward the constellation Pegasus.

“We have long suspected that these objects should exist, because during the process of planet formation a lot of material should be ejected from planetary systems. What’s most surprising is that we’ve never seen interstellar objects pass through before,” said Karen Meech, an astronomer at the IfA specializing in small bodies and their connection to solar system formation.

The small body has been assigned the temporary designation A/2017 U1 by the Minor Planet Center (MPC) in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where all observations on small bodies in our solar system — and now those just passing through — are collected. Said MPC Director Matt Holman, “This kind of discovery demonstrates the great scientific value of continual wide-field surveys of the sky, coupled with intensive follow-up observations, to find things we wouldn’t otherwise know are there.”

Since this is the first object of its type ever discovered, rules for naming this type of object will need to be established by the International Astronomical Union.

“We have been waiting for this day for decades,” said CNEOS Manager Paul Chodas. “It’s long been theorized that such objects exist — asteroids or comets moving around between the stars and occasionally passing through our solar system — but this is the first such detection. So far, everything indicates this is likely an interstellar object, but more data would help to confirm it.”

Indigenous people have been on the far northeastern edge of Canada for most of the last 10,000 years, moving in shortly after the ice retreated from the Last Glacial Maximum. Archaeological evidence suggests that people with distinct cultural traditions inhabited the region at least three different times with a possible hiatus for a period between 2,000 and 3,000 years ago. Now, researchers who’ve examined genetic evidence from mitochondrial DNA provide evidence that two of those groups, known as the Maritime Archaic and Beothuk, brought different matrilines to the island, adding further support to the notion that those groups had distinct population histories. The findings are published in Current Biology on October 12. “Our paper suggests, based purely on mitochondrial DNA, that the Maritime Archaic were not the direct ancestors of the Beothuk and that the two groups did not share a very recent common ancestor,” says Ana Duggan of McMaster University. “This in turn implies that the island of Newfoundland was populated multiple times by distinct groups.” The relationship between the older Maritime Archaic population and Beothuk hadn’t been clear from the archaeological record. With permission from the current-day indigenous community, Duggan and her colleagues, led by Hendrik Poinar, examined the mitochondrial genome diversity of 74 ancient remains from the island together with the archaeological record and dietary isotope profiles. All samples were collected from tiny amounts of bone or teeth. The sample set included a Maritime Archaic subadult more than 7,700 years old found in the L’Anse Amour burial mound, the oldest known burial mound in North America and one of the first manifestations of the Maritime Archaic tradition. The majority of the Beothuk samples came from the Notre Dame Bay area, where the Beothuk retreated in response to European expansions. Most of those samples are from people that lived on the island within the last 300 years. The DNA evidence showed that the two groups didn’t share a common maternal ancestor in the recent past, but rather one that coalesces sometime in the more distant past. “These data clearly suggest that the Maritime Archaic people are not the direct maternal ancestors of the Beothuk and thus that the population history of the island involves multiple independent arrivals by indigenous peoples followed by habitation for many generations,” the researchers write. “This shows the extremely rich population dynamics of early peoples on the furthest northeastern edge of the continent.”

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Indigenous people have been on the far northeastern edge of Canada for most of the last 10,000 years, moving in shortly after the ice retreated from the Last Glacial Maximum. Archaeological evidence suggests that people with distinct cultural traditions inhabited the region at least three different times with a possible hiatus for a period between 2,000 and 3,000 years ago.

Now, researchers who’ve examined genetic evidence from mitochondrial DNA provide evidence that two of those groups, known as the Maritime Archaic and Beothuk, brought different matrilines to the island, adding further support to the notion that those groups had distinct population histories.

“Our paper suggests, based purely on mitochondrial DNA, that the Maritime Archaic were not the direct ancestors of the Beothuk and that the two groups did not share a very recent common ancestor,” says Ana Duggan of McMaster University. “This in turn implies that the island of Newfoundland was populated multiple times by distinct groups.”

The relationship between the older Maritime Archaic population and Beothuk hadn’t been clear from the archaeological record. With permission from the current-day indigenous community, Duggan and her colleagues, led by Hendrik Poinar, examined the mitochondrial genome diversity of 74 ancient remains from the island together with the archaeological record and dietary isotope profiles. All samples were collected from tiny amounts of bone or teeth.

The sample set included a Maritime Archaic subadult more than 7,700 years old found in the L’Anse Amour burial mound, the oldest known burial mound in North America and one of the first manifestations of the Maritime Archaic tradition. The majority of the Beothuk samples came from the Notre Dame Bay area, where the Beothuk retreated in response to European expansions. Most of those samples are from people that lived on the island within the last 300 years. The DNA evidence showed that the two groups didn’t share a common maternal ancestor in the recent past, but rather one that coalesces sometime in the more distant past.

“These data clearly suggest that the Maritime Archaic people are not the direct maternal ancestors of the Beothuk and thus that the population history of the island involves multiple independent arrivals by indigenous peoples followed by habitation for many generations,” the researchers write. “This shows the extremely rich population dynamics of early peoples on the furthest northeastern edge of the continent.”

Brain waves reflect different types of learning

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Figuring out how to pedal a bike and memorizing the rules of chess require two different types of learning, and now for the first time, researchers have been able to distinguish each type of learning by the brain-wave patterns it produces.

When neurons fire, they produce electrical signals that combine to form brain waves that oscillate at different frequencies. “Our ultimate goal is to help people with learning and memory deficits,” notes Miller. “We might find a way to stimulate the human brain or optimize training techniques to mitigate those deficits.”

The neural signatures could help identify changes in learning strategies that occur in diseases such as Alzheimer’s, with an eye to diagnosing these diseases earlier or enhancing certain types of learning to help patients cope with the disorder, says Roman F. Loonis, a graduate student in the Miller Lab and first author of the paper. Picower Institute research scientist Scott L. Brincat and former MIT postdoc Evan G. Antzoulatos, now at the University of California at Davis, are co-authors.

Explicit versus implicit learning

Scientists used to think all learning was the same, Miller explains, until they learned about patients such as the famous Henry Molaison or “H.M.,” who developed severe amnesia in 1953 after having part of his brain removed in an operation to control his epileptic seizures. Molaison couldn’t remember eating breakfast a few minutes after the meal, but he was able to learn and retain motor skills that he learned, such as tracing objects like a five-pointed star in a mirror.

“H.M. and other amnesiacs got better at these skills over time, even though they had no memory of doing these things before,” Miller says.

The divide revealed that the brain engages in two types of learning and memory — explicit and implicit.

Explicit learning “is learning that you have conscious awareness of, when you think about what you’re learning and you can articulate what you’ve learned, like memorizing a long passage in a book or learning the steps of a complex game like chess,” Miller explains.

“Implicit learning is the opposite. You might call it motor skill learning or muscle memory, the kind of learning that you don’t have conscious access to, like learning to ride a bike or to juggle,” he adds. “By doing it you get better and better at it, but you can’t really articulate what you’re learning.”

Many tasks, like learning to play a new piece of music, require both kinds of learning, he notes.

Brain waves from earlier studies

When the MIT researchers studied the behavior of animals learning different tasks, they found signs that different tasks might require either explicit or implicit learning. In tasks that required comparing and matching two things, for instance, the animals appeared to use both correct and incorrect answers to improve their next matches, indicating an explicit form of learning. But in a task where the animals learned to move their gaze one direction or another in response to different visual patterns, they only improved their performance in response to correct answers, suggesting implicit learning.

What’s more, the researchers found, these different types of behavior are accompanied by different patterns of brain waves.

During explicit learning tasks, there was an increase in alpha2-beta brain waves (oscillating at 10-30 hertz) following a correct choice, and an increase delta-theta waves (3-7 hertz) after an incorrect choice. The alpha2-beta waves increased with learning during explicit tasks, then decreased as learning progressed. The researchers also saw signs of a neural spike in activity that occurs in response to behavioral errors, called event-related negativity, only in the tasks that were thought to require explicit learning.

The increase in alpha-2-beta brain waves during explicit learning “could reflect the building of a model of the task,” Miller explains. “And then after the animal learns the task, the alpha-beta rhythms then drop off, because the model is already built.”

By contrast, delta-theta rhythms only increased with correct answers during an implicit learning task, and they decreased during learning. Miller says this pattern could reflect neural “rewiring” that encodes the motor skill during learning.

“This showed us that there are different mechanisms at play during explicit versus implicit learning,” he notes.

Future Boost to Learning

Loonis says the brain wave signatures might be especially useful in shaping how we teach or train a person as they learn a specific task. “If we can detect the kind of learning that’s going on, then we may be able to enhance or provide better feedback for that individual,” he says. “For instance, if they are using implicit learning more, that means they’re more likely relying on positive feedback, and we could modify their learning to take advantage of that.”

The neural signatures could also help detect disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease at an earlier stage, Loonis says. “In Alzheimer’s, a kind of explicit fact learning disappears with dementia, and there can be a reversion to a different kind of implicit learning,” he explains. “Because the one learning system is down, you have to rely on another one.”

Earlier studies have shown that certain parts of the brain such as the hippocampus are more closely related to explicit learning, while areas such as the basal ganglia are more involved in implicit learning. But Miller says that the brain wave study indicates “a lot of overlap in these two systems. They share a lot of the same neural networks.”

New type of stem cell line produced offers expanded potential for research and treatments

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Researchers at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute and their collaborators have created Expanded Potential Stem Cells (EPSCs) in mice, for the first time, that have a greater potential for development than current stem cell lines. These stem cells have the features of the very first cells in the developing embryo, and can develop into any type of cell.

The researchers also believe that their study could have implications for human regenerative medicine and for understanding miscarriage and developmental disorders.

Stem cells have the ability to develop into other cell types, and existing stem cell lines are already extremely useful for research into development, disease and treatments. However, the two currently available types of stem cell lines — Embryonic Stem cells (ES) and induced Pluripotent Stem cells (iPS) — have certain limitations. It is not currently possible for them to form every type of cell since they are already excluded from developing certain cell lineages.

To discover new stem cells for use in research and regenerative medicine, the researchers created a way of culturing cells from the earliest stage of development, when the fertilised egg has only divided into 4 or 8 cells that are still considered to retain some totipotency — the ability to produce all cell types. Their hypothesis was that these cells should be less programmed than ES cells, which are taken from the around-100-cell stage of development — called a blastocyst. They grew these early cells in a special growth condition that inhibited key development signals and pathways.

The scientists discovered that their new cultured cells kept the desired development characteristics of the earliest cells and named them Expanded Potential Stem Cells (EPSCs). Importantly, they were also able to reprogramme mouse ES cells and iPS cells in the new condition and create EPSCs from these cells, turning back the development clock to the very earliest cell type.

Dr Pentao Liu, lead researcher of this project, from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute and an affiliate faculty member of the Wellcome Trust-MRC Stem Cell Institute, University of Cambridge, said: “The earliest cell is like a blank piece of paper, in theory it should have the greatest development potential. This is the first time that stable stem cell lines of these earliest mouse cells have been possible, and we see that they do indeed keep the molecular features of the 4-8 cell embryo and can develop into any cell type.”

As a fertilised egg develops into a blastocyst, it produces cells that will form the embryo — where ES cells come from — and two other types of cell that will develop into the placenta or the yolk sac. It is possible to establish three different types of stem cells — including ES cells — from these three cell types in the blastocyst. EPSCs are the first stem cells that are able to produce all three types of blastocyst stem cells, which gives them much greater potential for development.

Dr Jian Yang, a first author on the paper from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, said: “EPSCs provide a platform to study early embryo cells in detail at the molecular level to understand development, not only in mouse, but ultimately in future in humans. This new method of producing stem cells could be enormously helpful for studying development, more efficiently generating functional human cells, and researching treatments for pregnancy problems such as pre-eclampsia and miscarriages.”

Professor Hiro Nakauchi, a co-author on the paper from Stanford University, said: “This is a fantastic achievement, by working with the very earliest cells, this study has created stem cell lines that can form both embryonic and all the extra-embryonic cells. The methods and insights from this study in mice could be used to help establish cultures of similar stem cells from other mammalian species, including those where no ES or iPS cell lines are available yet. The research also has great implications for human regenerative medicine as stem cells with improved development potential open up new opportunities. Further research in this area is vital, so that we can properly explore the potential of these cells.”