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13th September 2014

The coffee genome is sequenced

The coffee genome has been published, with more than 25,000 genes identified. This reveals that coffee plants make caffeine using a different set of genes from those found in tea, cacao and other such plants. The new findings could help to improve coffee production in the future.

 

coffee

 

Researchers have published the genome of Coffea canephora, a plant which accounts for about 30 percent of the world's coffee production. By comparing the sequences and positions of genes in coffee, tea and cacao (chocolate) plants, they have shown how enzymes involved in producing caffeine likely evolved independently in each of these three organisms. In other words, coffee did not inherit caffeine-linked genes from a shared common ancestor – but instead developed the genes on its own.

Compared to several other plant species – including the grape and tomato – coffee has larger families of genes that relate to the production of alkaloid and flavonoid compounds, which contribute to qualities such as aroma and bitterness. Coffee also has an expanded collection of N-methyltransferases, enzymes that are involved in making caffeine.

Upon taking a closer look, the researchers found that coffee's caffeine enzymes are more closely related to other genes within the coffee plant than to caffeine enzymes in tea and chocolate. This provides evidence that caffeine production emerged independently in coffee. If this trait had been inherited from a shared common ancestor, the enzymes would have been more similar between species.

There are several possible reasons why caffeine is so important in nature. The chemical may help to deter pests, as well as nearby competitors by stunting their growth when coffee leaves fall on the soil. It may also facilitate pollination. One recent paper showed that – like humans – certain insects can develop caffeine addiction. Bees visiting caffeine-producing plants often returned to get another taste.

 

coffee plant

 

Worldwide, over 2.2 billion cups of coffee are consumed daily. It is the principal agricultural product of many tropical countries. According to estimates by the International Coffee Organisation, more than 8.7 million tons of coffee is produced each year from 110,000 sq km (42,500 sq mi) of land – an area equivalent in size to the U.S. state of Pennsylvania. Annual export revenue is $15.4 billion and the sector employs 26 million people in 52 countries.

Philippe Lashermes, at the French Institute of Research for Development: "Coffee is as important to everyday early risers as it is to the global economy. Accordingly, a genome sequence could be a significant step toward improving coffee."

In addition to new and exotic flavours, these improvements may include better resistance to drought and disease. Leaf rust, for example, is currently affecting about half the plants in Central America, in the worst outbreak since 1976. Scientists could also engineer the plants to grow faster and increase their output of coffee beans. Such genetic enhancements may prove vital in the future – a study in 2012 estimated that climate change alone will lead to the extinction of wild Arabica coffee (Coffea arabica) by the 2080s.

 

 

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12th September 2014

512GB SD card announced by SanDisk

SanDisk has revealed a 512GB SD card, the highest storage capacity ever seen in this form factor.

 

512 gb sd card sandisk

 

SanDisk yesterday launched the 512GB Extreme PRO SDXC UHS-I, the world’s highest capacity SD card and the first to reach 512GB, or half a terabyte. This new offering is designed to meet the demands of industry professionals who require the most advanced gear available for shooting 4K Ultra HD (3840x2160p) video, Full HD video (1920x1080) and high-speed burst mode photography.

“As an industry leader, SanDisk continues to push the boundaries of technology to provide customers with the innovative, reliable, high-performance solutions they have come to expect from us,” said Dinesh Bahal, vice president of product marketing. “4K Ultra HD is an example of a technology that is pushing us to develop new storage solutions capable of handling massive file sizes. The 512GB SanDisk Extreme PRO SDXC UHS-I card is a tremendous advancement that enables professionals to reliably store more content on a single card than ever before.”

Since the first 1GB SD card in 2004, storage capacities have grown exponentially and this new 512GB card represents a 500-fold increase in a decade – yet maintains the same size form factor. It delivers write speeds up to 90MB/s and transfer speeds up to 95 MB/s. The card is also temperature-proof (withstanding between -40ºC and 85ºC), waterproof, shockproof and X-ray proof. The product will initially go on sale for $800 (£490), but this cost is likely to decline rapidly in the months and years ahead.

The same exponential trend has been witnessed in the smaller-sized microSD format. In February this year, SanDisk revealed the first microSD to reach 128GB of storage capacity.

 

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9th September 2014

Lifespan of fruit flies extended by 30 percent

Biologists have identified a gene that can slow the aging process throughout the entire body when activated "remotely" in key organ systems.

 

fruit fly

 

Working with fruit flies, scientists at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), activated a gene known as AMPK. This gene is a key energy sensor within cells; it gets activated when cellular energy levels are low. Increasing the amount of AMPK in fruit flies' intestines boosted their lifespans by 30% – to eight weeks from the typical six – and the flies stayed healthier for longer as well. This is equivalent to extending the average human lifespan for OECD countries from 80 to 104.

The research, published in the journal Cell Reports, could have important implications for delaying aging and disease in humans, explains David Walker, associate professor of integrative biology and physiology at UCLA and senior author of the study.

“We have shown that when we activate the gene in the intestine or the nervous system, we see the aging process is slowed beyond the organ system in which the gene is activated,” Walker said.

These findings are important because extending the healthy life of humans would presumably require protecting many of the body’s organ systems from the ravages of aging – but delivering anti-aging treatments to the brain or other key organs could prove technically difficult. This study suggests that activating AMPK in a more accessible organ such as the intestine, for example, could ultimately slow the aging process throughout the entire body, including the brain.

Humans have AMPK, but it is usually not activated at a high level, Walker explained: “Instead of studying the diseases of aging – Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer's disease, cancer, stroke, cardiovascular disease, diabetes – one by one, we believe it may be possible to intervene in the aging process and delay the onset of many of these diseases. We are not there yet, and it could, of course, take many years, but that is our goal and we think it is realistic. The ultimate aim of our research is to promote healthy aging in people.”

 

fly brain intestine autophagy

 

The fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster, is an excellent model for studying aging in humans, because scientists have identified all of the fruit fly’s genes and know how to switch individual genes on and off. The biologists studied approximately 100,000 of them over the course of the study.

Co-author Matthew Ulgherait, who conducted the research in Walker’s laboratory as a doctoral student, focused on a cellular process called autophagy, which enables cells to degrade and discard old, damaged cellular components. By getting rid of that “cellular garbage” before it damages cells, autophagy protects against aging, and AMPK has been shown previously to activate this process. Ulgherait studied whether activating AMPK in the flies led to autophagy occurring at a greater rate than usual.

“A really interesting finding was when Matt activated AMPK in the nervous system,” said Walker. “He saw evidence of increased levels of autophagy in not only the brain – but also in the intestine. And vice versa: activating AMPK in the intestine produced increased levels of autophagy in the brain and perhaps elsewhere, too.”

Many neurodegenerative diseases, including both Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, are associated with the accumulation of protein aggregates, a type of cellular garbage, in the brain, Walker noted.

“Matt moved beyond correlation and established causality,” he said. “He showed that the activation of autophagy was both necessary to see the anti-aging effects and sufficient; that he could bypass AMPK and directly target autophagy.”

AMPK is thought to be a key target of metformin – a drug used to treat Type 2 diabetes – and metformin is believed to activate AMPK. In research published in May 2013, Walker and his colleagues identified another gene, called parkin, which delayed the onset of aging and extended the life span of fruit flies by 28%.

 

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8th September 2014

Blue whales in coastal California recover to
historic numbers

Blue whales off the California coast have recovered to near historical population levels, now numbering about 2,200.

 

blue whale

 

At 30 metres (98 ft) in length and reaching 190 tons or more in weight, the blue whale is the largest existing animal and the heaviest that ever existed – twice the weight of the largest known dinosaur. Blue whales were abundant in nearly all oceans on Earth until the early 20th century. For more than a hundred years they were hunted almost to extinction by whalers, until protected by the international community in 1966.

In coastal California waters, blue whale numbers have now rebounded to near historic levels, according to a study published in Marine Mammal Science – and while the number of these animals being struck by ships is higher than U.S. limits, such strikes do not immediately threaten that recovery. This is the only population of blue whales in the world known to have recovered from whaling.

"The recovery of California blue whales from whaling demonstrates the ability of blue whale populations to rebuild under careful management and conservation measures," says Cole Monnahan, from the University of Washington, lead author of the study.

California blue whales are at their most visible while feeding 20 to 30 miles off the California coast, but are actually found along the eastern side of the Pacific Ocean from the equator up into the Gulf of Alaska. Their numbers in this region are now estimated at 2,200 – which is likely 97 percent of the historical level, according to the model the researchers used.

 

coastal california map
Map of coastal California. Credit: BrendelSignature (Cc-by-sa-3.0)

 

There are likely at least 11 blue whales struck by ships every year along the West Coast, which is above the "potential biological removal" of 3.1 whales per year allowed by the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act. However, the new findings show there could be an 11-fold increase in vessels before there is a 50 percent chance that the population will drop below what is considered "depleted" by regulators.

"Even accepting our results that the current level of ship strikes is not going to cause overall population declines, there is still going to be ongoing concern that we don't want these whales killed by ships," said co-author Trevor Branch, assistant professor of aquatic and fishery sciences.

The population returning to its historical level explains the slowdown in population growth, noted in recent years, better than the idea of ship strikes, according to the scientists. With no other readily apparent human-caused factor, whale numbers are reaching their habitat limit – something called the carrying capacity.

 

blue whales
Credit: J Gilpatrick/M Lynn/NOAA

 

"We think the California population has reached the capacity of what the system can take as far as blue whales," said Branch.

"Our findings aren't meant to deprive California blue whales of protections that they need going forward," Monnahan said. "California blue whales are recovering because we took actions to stop catches and start monitoring. If we hadn't, the population might have been pushed to near extinction – an unfortunate fate suffered by other blue whale populations."

"It's a conservation success story," Monnahan concluded.

 

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7th September 2014

The first coal plant in the U.S. to capture and store CO2 underground

This week, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approved permits allowing the FutureGen Industrial Alliance to capture and store CO2 deep underground near Jacksonville, Illinois – the first project of its kind in the U.S.

 

carbon capture and storage map
The Meredosia Energy Centre. Credit: FutureGen

 

Atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) currently stand at nearly 400ppm, the highest concentration for millions of years. This is largely a result of human industrial activity, the evidence for which is overwhelming. A new study published in Climate Risk Management finds there is a 99.999% certainty that humans are driving global warming, while a paper earlier this year revealed a similar figure of 99.9%. Claims of a "pause" in warming are refuted when accounting for missing heat data in the Arctic, and in any case, 93% of heat is found in the oceans rather than surface temperatures.

Worldwide, coal supplies about 30% of energy, accounting for 44% of CO2 emissions. In the United States, its use has declined in recent years, but still represents nearly a quarter of the nation's greenhouse gas emissions. Plans are underway to reduce carbon pollution from U.S. coal plants by 30% from 2005 levels by 2030 – through efficiency measures, shifting from coal to gas, investing in clean energy and making power plant upgrades.

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) will form part of this strategy. The trapping of CO2 in deep geological formations has been proposed, with studies having identified regions where centuries' worth of emissions could be safely sequestered. Industry forecasts indicate that CCS will achieve widespread adoption by the late 2020s, by which time sequestered coal-based electricity may cost less than unsequestered coal-based power today. The IPCC estimates that the economic potential of CCS could be up to 55% of the total carbon mitigation effort until the year 2100.

 

carbon capture system
The oxy-combustion process being developed by FutureGen.

 

Since 2003, a non-profit group known as the FutureGen Industrial Alliance, in partnership with the U.S. Department of Energy, has been seeking to develop a first-of-its-kind, near-zero emissions coal plant. A new oxy-coal system using an innovative purification method has shown potential as a way of separating, compressing and storing over 90% of CO2 generated from the combustion process. After successful testing at 30 MW scale, the project was relaunched as FutureGen 2.0, with plans for commercial-scale validation at an existing 200 MW coal plant in Meredosia, Illinois. Retrofitting this old power station (seen in the photo above) would enable the capturing of 1.1 million tons of CO2 each year – equivalent to emissions from 232,000 cars.

The project has faced a number of setbacks and cost overruns. This week, however, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finally approved permits allowing CO2 to be captured at Meredosia, transported along a 30 mi (48 km) pipeline and stored 4,000 ft (1.2 km) underground at a site in Jacksonville. Drilling of the four wells containing liquefied gas could begin as soon as next month, according to the EPA's press release. The project will also include a visitors, research and training centre.

A total of 22 million metric tons of CO2 are expected to be captured over the 20 year life of the project. This appears miniscule when compared to the almost 5.5 billion tons of annual emissions in the U.S. – not to mention the 1,400 gigatons of global CO2 output since the Industrial Revolution, something which is going to need resolving later in this century. Nevertheless, FutureGen 2.0 represents an important milestone in CCS technology and a vital early step on the long road to decarbonisation. For more information, visit FutureGenAlliance.org.

 

ccs map route

 

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4th September 2014

Google's health company spin-off Calico announces massive investment into anti-aging research

Last year, Google announced Calico, a spin-off company with the specific aim of developing treatments for age-related diseases. In its first major step since that launch, Calico has now formed a partnership with AbbVie, another biotech firm. Together, they will collaborate to accelerate the discovery, development and commercialisation of new therapies.

The companies will co-invest up to $1.5 billion to create a world-class R&D facility in the San Francisco Bay Area. This will combine Calico's discovery and early development capabilities with AbbVie's broad research, development and commercial expertise, with a focus on aging and age-related diseases including neurodegeneration and cancer.

Art Levinson, CEO and founder of Calico, says in a press release: “Our relationship with AbbVie is a pivotal event for Calico, whose mission is to develop life-enhancing therapies for people with age-related diseases. It will greatly accelerate our efforts to understand the science of aging, advance our clinical work, and help bring important therapies to patients everywhere.”

 

anti aging pill

 

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4th September 2014

Long-distance virtual telepathy is demonstrated

Direct brain-to-brain communication has been demonstrated in humans located 5,000 miles apart via the Internet.

 

virtual telepathy

 

In a first-of-its-kind study, an international team of neuroscientists and robotics engineers have demonstrated the viability of direct brain-to-brain communication in humans. Recently published in PLOS ONE, the highly novel findings describe the successful transmission of information via the Internet between the intact scalps of two human subjects – located 5,000 miles apart.

"We wanted to find out if one could communicate directly between two people by reading out the brain activity from one person and injecting brain activity into the second person, and do so across great physical distances by leveraging existing communication pathways," explains co-author Alvaro Pascual-Leone, PhD, Director of the Berenson-Allen Center for Noninvasive Brain Stimulation at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC) and Professor of Neurology at Harvard Medical School. "One such pathway is, of course, the Internet, so our question became, 'Could we develop an experiment that would bypass the talking or typing part of Internet and establish direct brain-to-brain communication between subjects located far away from each other in India and France?'"

It turned out the answer was "yes."

In the neuroscientific equivalent of instant messaging, Pascual-Leone and his colleagues successfully transmitted the words "hola" and "ciao" in a computer-mediated brain-to-brain transmission, from a location in India to a location in France, using internet-linked electroencephalogram (EEG) and robot-assisted and image-guided transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) technologies.

 

brain to brain communication

 

Previous studies on EEG-based brain-computer interaction (BCI) have typically made use of communication between a human brain and computer. In these studies, electrodes attached to a person's scalp record electrical currents in the brain as a person realises an action-thought, such as consciously thinking about moving the arm or leg. The computer then interprets that signal and translates it to a control output, such as a robot or wheelchair.

But, in this new study, the research team added a second human brain on the other end of the system. Four healthy participants, aged 28 to 50, participated in the study. One of the four subjects was assigned to the brain-computer interface (BCI) branch and was the sender of the words; the other three were assigned to the computer-brain interface (CBI) branch of the experiments and received the messages and had to understand them.

Using EEG, the research team first translated the greetings "hola" and "ciao" into binary code, then emailed the results from India to France. There a computer-brain interface transmitted the message to the receiver's brain through non-invasive brain stimulation. The subjects experienced this as phosphenes, flashes of light in their peripheral vision. The light appeared in numerical sequences that enabled the receiver to decode the information in the message, and while the subjects did not report feeling anything, they did correctly receive the greetings.

A second similar experiment was conducted between people in Spain and France, the end result being a total error rate of just 15 percent, 11 percent on the decoding end and five percent on the initial coding side.

"By using advanced precision neurotechnologies including wireless EEG and robotised TMS, we were able to directly and noninvasively transmit a thought from one person to another, without them having to speak or write," says Pascual-Leone. "This in itself is a remarkable step in human communication, but being able to do so across a distance of thousands of miles is a critically important proof-of-principle for the development of brain-to-brain communications. We believe these experiments represent an important first step in exploring the feasibility of complementing or bypassing traditional language-based or motor-based communication."

 

brain to brain communication diagram

 

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3rd September 2014

NASA to go ahead with its huge new rocket

NASA has completed a review of the Space Launch System (SLS). The rocket will have its first test launch "no later than November 2018" with a possibility of manned flights to Mars in the 2030s.

 

space launch system rocket

 

NASA has completed a rigorous review of the Space Launch System (SLS) – a next generation rocket designed to carry humans beyond Earth orbit and eventually to Mars. The project has received the go-ahead to proceed from the formulation stage to development, something no other exploration class launch vehicle has achieved since the agency built the Space Shuttle.

"We are on a journey of scientific and human exploration that leads to Mars," said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. "And we’re firmly committed to building the launch vehicle and other supporting systems that will take us on that journey."

For its first test flight, the SLS will be configured for a 70-metric-ton (77-ton) lift capacity and carry an uncrewed Orion spacecraft beyond low-Earth orbit. In its most powerful configuration, it will provide an unprecedented lift capability of 130 metric tons (143 tons), enabling missions even farther into our Solar System, including such destinations as an asteroid and Mars.

“Our nation is embarked on an ambitious space exploration program, and we owe it to the American taxpayers to get it right,” said Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot, who oversaw the review process. “After rigorous review, we’re committing today to a funding level and readiness date that will keep us on track to sending humans to Mars in the 2030s – and we’re going to stand behind that commitment.”

"The Space Launch System Program has done exemplary work during the past three years to get us to this point," said William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for the Human Explorations and Operations Mission Directorate, at the NASA Headquarters in Washington. "We will keep the teams working toward a more ambitious readiness date, but will be ready no later than November 2018.”

“Engineers have made significant technical progress on the rocket and have produced hardware for all elements of the SLS program,” said SLS program manager Todd May. “The team members deserve an enormous amount of credit for their dedication to building this national asset.”

In April, the program delivered the first piece of flight hardware for Orion’s maiden flight, targeted for December 2014. This features the same design that will be used on the SLS rocket’s first flight, Exploration Mission-1.

The SLS will be the largest, most capable rocket ever built. In addition to opening new frontiers for human explorers, it will enable a new generation of science missions in the outer Solar System – with heavier payloads and more complex robotic landers, for example.

 

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2nd September 2014

An office enriched with plants makes staff happier and boosts productivity by 15 per cent

Future working environments could benefit from adding more greenery, if they follow scientific advice from the University of Queensland.

 

office desk with plants

 

An office enriched with plants makes staff happier and boosts productivity by 15 per cent, a University of Queensland researcher has found. The study is the first of its kind to assess long-term impacts of plants in office environments. Co-authored by Professor Alex Haslam from UQ’s School of Psychology, the study found that adding plants to an office also improved employee satisfaction and quality of life. A green office helps employees to be more physically, mentally and emotionally involved in their work.

“Office landscaping helps the workplace become a more enjoyable, comfortable and profitable place to be,” said Haslam. “It appears that in part this is because a green office communicates to employees that their employer cares about them and their welfare. Employees from previously ‘lean’ office environments experienced increased levels of happiness, resulting in a more effective workplace.”

The study was conducted in partnership with researchers from Cardiff University, the University of Exeter and the University of Groningen. The research examined the impact ‘lean’ versus ‘green’ office space has on employees from two large commercial offices in the UK and the Netherlands. A team monitored staff productivity levels over a two-month period, and employees were surveyed to determine perceptions of air quality, concentration and workplace satisfaction.

 

office plants

 

“Employees were more satisfied with their workplace and reported increased concentration levels and better perceived air quality in an office with plants,” Professor Haslam said. “The findings suggest that investing in landscaping an office will pay off through an increase in office workers’ quality of life and productivity.”

Professor Haslam also said the findings challenge modern business philosophies that suggest a lean office is a more productive one.

“The ‘lean’ philosophy has been influential across a wide range of organisational domains,” he said. “Modern offices and desks have been stripped back to create sparse spaces. Our findings question this widespread theory that less is more – sometimes less is just less.”

 

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1st September 2014

In our digital world, are young people losing the ability to read emotions?

Children's social skills may be declining as they have less time for face-to-face interaction due to their increased use of digital media, according to a psychological study by the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).

 

boy with smartphone

 

UCLA scientists found that sixth-graders who went five days without even glancing at a smartphone, television or other digital screen did substantially better at reading human emotions than sixth-graders from the same school who continued to spend hours each day looking at their electronic devices.

“Many people are looking at the benefits of digital media in education, and not many are looking at the costs,” said Patricia Greenfield, a distinguished professor of psychology at UCLA College and senior author of the study. “Decreased sensitivity to emotional cues — losing the ability to understand the emotions of other people — is one of the costs. The displacement of in-person social interaction by screen interaction seems to be reducing social skills.”

Researchers studied two sets of sixth-graders from a Southern California public school: 51 who lived together for five days at the Pali Institute, a nature and science camp about 70 miles east of Los Angeles, and 54 others from the same school. The camp doesn’t allow students to use electronic devices — a policy that many students found to be challenging for the first couple of days. Most adapted quickly, however, according to camp counsellors.

At the beginning and end of the study, both groups were evaluated on their ability to recognise people’s emotions in photos and videos. The students were shown 48 pictures of faces that were happy, sad, angry or scared, and asked to identify their feelings. They also watched videos of actors interacting with one another and were instructed to describe the characters’ emotions. In one scene, students take a test and submit it to a teacher; one of the students is confident and excited, the other is anxious. In another scene, one student is saddened after being excluded from a conversation.

The children who had been at the nature camp improved significantly over the five days in their ability to read facial emotions and other non-verbal cues to emotion, compared with the students who continued to use their media devices.

Researchers tracked how many errors the students made when attempting to identify the emotions in the photos and videos. When analysing photos, for example, those at the camp made an average of 9.41 errors at the end of the study, down from 14.02 at the beginning. The students who didn’t attend the camp recorded a significantly smaller change. For the videos, the students who went to camp improved significantly, while the scores of the students who did not attend camp showed no change. The findings applied equally to both boys and girls.

“You can’t learn non-verbal emotional cues from a screen in the way you can learn it from face-to-face communication,” said Yalda Uhls, lead author and senior researcher with the UCLA’s Children’s Digital Media Center, Los Angeles. “If you’re not practicing face-to-face communication, you could be losing important social skills.”

Students participating in the study reported that they text, watch television and play video games for an average of four-and-a-half hours on a typical school day. Some surveys have found that the figure is even higher nationally. Greenfield considers the results significant, given that they occurred after only five days. The implications of the research are that people need more face-to-face interaction — and that even when people use digital media for social interaction, they’re spending less time developing social skills and learning to read non-verbal cues.

“We’ve shown a model of what more face-to-face interaction can do,” Greenfield said. “Social interaction is needed to develop skills in understanding the emotions of other people.”

Emoticons are a poor substitute for face-to-face communication, Uhls concluded: “We are social creatures. We need device-free time.”

The research will appear in the October print edition of Computers in Human Behavior and is already published online.

 

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