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illustration of stressful man
Tracey Shors, a professor in the Department of Psychology in the School of Arts and Sciences, has come across an explanation for why women are particularly susceptible to stress and prone to suffer from stress-related diseases, concluding that “males and females can use different brain circuits to learn after stressful life events.”  Illustration by James Yang

Stress and Sex
The debate will march on whether men and women are fundamentally different or similar. But, evidently, males and females have their own ways of coping with stress. In evaluating the brains of male and female rats, Tracey Shors, a professor in the Department of Psychology in the School of Arts and Sciences, investigated the relationship be­tween the amygdala, which senses stressful situations, and the prefrontal cortex, which facilitates higher thinking, by seeing if the rats could learn to associate two things after confronting a stressful situation. The male rats could, but the female rats could not—unless the connection between these two regions was severed so that the amygdala couldn’t “talk” to the prefrontal cortex. “Males and females can use different brain circuits to learn after stressful life events,” says Shors, explaining that differences in brain function between the sexes may account for why women are particularly susceptible to stress and prone to suffer from stress-related diseases.

Viral Cat and Mouse
Researchers at Rutgers have discovered why HIV-1, the virus responsible for AIDS, can resist azidothymidine, or AZT, the drug commonly deployed to combat AIDS. The findings, reported in the September issue of Nature Structural and Molecular Biology, could help scientists develop more effective treatments for the disease.

“What we’ve found is the detailed way in which the mutations act to promote the resistance,” said Eddy Arnold, Board of Governors Professor of Chemistry and Chemical Biology in the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology in the School of Arts and Sciences and faculty member of the Center for Advanced Biotechnology and Medicine. “Instead of blocking the actions of AZT, the virus actually removes it, and it does so by using adenosine triphosphate, one of the most common cellular molecules. This is an outstanding example of how sneaky HIV can be in thwarting the efficacy of therapeutic drugs.”

Researchers have known for some time that the virus grew resistant to AZT by mutating; what was not understood were the ways that the mutations worked.

Total Eclipse of the Sun
Producing pollution-free electricity moved a step closer to reality when physicists at Rutgers came across new properties in an organic mate­rial called rubrene that could lead to efficient, inexpensive solar cells. Energy-carrying particles generated by packets of light travel as much as 1,000 times farther in organic, or carbon-based, semiconductors. The finding, published in the journal Nature Materials, raises the hopes that solar cells based on using this nascent technology may supplant silicon solar cells in cost and performance, boosting the practicality of solar-produced electricity, not fossil fuels, as a source of energy.

The Generation Gap
As baby boomers ride through middle age, the generation heralded as one of history’s most fortunate evidently isn’t so content. According to Julie Phillips, a professor in the Department of Sociology in the School of Arts and Sciences and a faculty member of the Institute for Health, Health Care Policy, and Aging Research, and Ellen Idler, of Emory University, the suicide rate among middle-aged people, those born between 1946 and 1964, jumped appreciably between 1999 and 2005, with increases of nearly 30 percent for people without college degrees.

In a study published in the September/October issue of Public Health Reports, the researchers speculate that, among baby boomers, the relatively high rates of suicide as adolescents, substance abuse as adults, the onset of chronic health problems, and financial woes account for the high level, which was most pronounced among unmarried, noncollege-educated men.

“If these trends continue,” Phillips and Idler write, “they are a cause for concern. Male baby boomers have yet to reach old age, the period in the male life course at highest risk for suicide; if they continue to set historically high suicide rates as they did in adolescence and now in middle age, their rates in old age could be very high indeed.”

Preliminary data for the years 2006 and 2007 show the trend continuing.

A Healthy Work Ethic
Exercise is good for your health—and also good for employers. Brandon Alderman, an assistant professor in the Department of Exercise Science and Sports Studies in the School of Arts and Sciences, is working with a treadmill desk to ascertain whether employees are more productive—making better decisions and planning better—if they are able to engage in moderate exercise while at their desk. Alderman got the idea for his research project after noting the observation of his wife, a former fourth-grade teacher, who pointed out that the boys in her class preferred to stand up at their desk while doing schoolwork. He wondered if the notion had application for a population that knows 14-hour days in front of computers and televisions. “All the studies so far look at acute bouts of vigorous or moderate intensity, and the evidence is conclusive that this kind of activity does improve cognitive function,” says Alderman.

Business 101: Trust and Teamwork
If a business is going to be successful, maybe economic success will be determined more by intangibles like trust, teamwork, and a willingness to take risks than by bank policies. That’s the consideration of Michael Camasso, a professor of agricultural and resource economics at the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences, and Radha Jagannathan, an associate professor of urban planning and policy development at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy. As teachers on Fulbright scholarships during the summer in Italy and Germany, respectively, they were part of a novel study of the impact of “social capital” on business.

“The soft skills the southern Italians learn, such as trust and cooperation, influence relations with the immediate and extended family, but they don’t typically stretch beyond that to the larger society,” says Camasso. “Where there is a lack of trust in outsiders and institutions like banks, businesses don’t expand.” Developed nations, particularly those of the European Union that have large numbers of workers in the public sector, want to better understand what drives entrepreneurship and self-sufficiency: key components in growing economies. This spring, Camasso and Jagannathan will survey young people, and their parents, in Italy and Germany as well as Switzerland and the United States to gauge views on career choices, trustworthiness of institutions big and small, and their own families.

All Rise
In all cells, as we all vividly remember from biology class, ribosomes convert amino acids into proteins, relying on information coded in RNA. How this is so has been somewhat of a mystery to scientists. Now, researchers at Rutgers have discovered that a protein called Rai1 provides the quality control to make sure the process takes place without complication, something that scientists had thought was a given. In studying yeast cells, Megerditch Kiledjian, a professor in the Department of Cell Biology and Neuroscience in the School of Arts and Sciences, and research associate Xinfu Jiao, revealed that although Rai1 ultimately accounts for cellular smooth sailing, it’s not without a hitch or two as RNA undergoes changes on its way to the ribosomes. The new understanding of the process could facilitate researchers’ manipulation of the system.

In Sickness and in Health
Think E. coli and you think of food poisoning. But the bacterium may well hold the key to renewable en­ergy. In researching the possibility of altering the genetic composition of E. coli, Desmond Lun, an associate professor in the Department of Computer Science at Rutgers–Camden, is exploring how to create biodiesel fuel by forcing the bacte­rium to overproduce its fatty acids, which are not all that different from a lot of fuel molecules, according to Lun, who points out that making fuel oil from food sources is not very sustainable because of its cost and competition with human food sources.

Shoo, Fly
We associate fruit flies with spoiled summer food. Yet, the common household fly may lead to a discovery for keeping donated human organs fresh. That’s because the fly has a complex genetic composition that makes it an ideal candidate for testing whether manipulating an enzyme could regulate the amount of energy the fly has. By essentially shutting off the fly’s molecular thermostat and thereby increasing its tolerance to cold, biologists at Rutgers–Camden, armed with a $385,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health, are hoping that the same could be done to human cells. If so, one application would be extending the 24-hour period now considered safe for transplanting donated organs.

Star Power
Astrophysicists at Rutgers led an international team of scientists in the discovery of 10 enormous galaxy clusters by conducting a large survey of the southern sky using a novel technique that detects “shadows” of galaxy clusters on the cosmic microwave background radiation. The observations, published as a paper in Astrophysical Journal, could lead to a better understanding of the universe’s origin and its evolution. •