STA, 13 February 2020 - Slovenian researchers were a part of an international team that has made a breakthrough discovery in thyroid gland research. Together with researchers from the UK and Germany, they have determined the entire structure of human thyroglobulin, the protein precursor of thyroid hormones, for the first time.
The results of the study into the protein that is essential for the growth and development of thyroid hormones will have a significant impact on the treatment of thyroid gland disorders, the Jožef Stefan Institute (IJS) said in a press release on Thursday.
Using cryo-electron microscopy, the researchers from the IJS and the Centre of Excellence for Integrated Approaches in Chemistry and Biology of Proteins, Dušan Turk, Ajda Taler-Verčič and Miha Renko, cooperated with researchers from Cambridge, Berlin and Bristol to identify the full-length structure of thyroglobulin for the first time.
The results of their study were presented in the scientific journal Nature.
Thyroglobulin is the protein that is used to create the T3 and T4 hormones in the thyroid gland. The two hormones regulate energy consumption of human cells and aside from thyroglobulin they are the only molecules in the human body that contain iodine.
Iodine is thus a key element for proper development and functioning of the human organism and thyroglobulin enables its storage for periods when the body is not receiving it in sufficient quantities.
The functioning of the thyroid gland is well researched, which helps control functional disorders, but up until now it was not clear how hormones are actually created in the gland.
Human thyroglobulin is a giant molecule consisting of two chains of 2,768 and 5,536 amino acids, respectively.
The structure of thyroglobulin determined by cryo-electron microscopy has revealed that the molecule has only seven spots where hormones are created.
Each molecule is formed from two amino acids called tyrosine. The newly created hormones are extracted by enzymes, protease, through decomposition of thyroglobulin into amino acids.
The article on the full-length structure of thyroglobulin is a result of almost twenty-year work and a revolution in cryo-electron microscopy, IJS said in the press release.
STA, 11 February - Women remain under-represented in scientific and technical professions, especially at senior levels. Unconscious bias, double standards and gender stereotypes are some of the reasons why headway towards gender equality in this field remains sluggish. Indeed, in some areas there has not been any progress at all.
Worldwide only about a third of research staff are women and only about 30% of women opt for programmes that fall under the umbrella of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), according to UNESCO data.
University of Nova Gorica astrophysicist Andreja Gomboc, who chairs a commission for equal opportunities in science, says low representation of women in STEM is bad not just for women but for these fields of scientific endeavour in general.
"Women significantly contribute to tackling the big issues humanity faces in the 21st century and it is necessary to create opportunities for their full participation in science. Addressing these issues requires leveraging the entire human potential," Gomboc told the STA ahead of the 11 January International Day of Girls and Women in Science.
For women, not choosing a career in STEM limits their career options since the high-tech society of today offers huge employment opportunities for STEM graduates. "If girls do not chose these fields, they don't have the opportunities."
Gomboc says gender discrimination is no longer as explicit as it used to be, but there is still a lot of bias, double standards and gender stereotypes that dissuade women from pursuing a career in science.
Slovenia's largest university, the University of Ljubljana, has been dominated by men since it was established a century ago. The latest figures show the ratio of men to women among faculty is roughly 60:40, with the share of women declining the farther up the career ladder one goes.
In 2018, there were 56% of men among assistant professors, 60% among associate professors and 69% among tenured professors, according to Aleksandra Kanjuo Mrčela, professor of sociology at the Faculty of Social Sciences.
Despite the persistent imbalance, she believes that the situation will gradually improve as the share of men has been declining. "It is expected that in the coming years the gender structure will be balanced across all job segments," she says.
Gomboc believes that in order to improve the conditions for female researchers, it is necessary to consistently comply with gender equality provisions at all levels. This does not mean men and women have to be the same, it means that "we are equal in practice, that we have equal opportunities and equally participate in all spheres of public and private life".
She says Slovenia has some good baseline solutions, for example 12-month parental leave, but new steps are being made very slowly. "We know what we have to put down in the sections on gender equality in applications for EU projects and strategy documents ... but then many ignore that."
Indeed, she says there has been a negative trends in certain areas, for example in top national awards for science. "Among last year's recipients of Zois and Puch prizes, there were only 12% of women and few women were nominated. This means that the environments in which women researchers work do not value their achievements the same way they value the achievements of their male colleagues."
Our other stories tagged “women in Slovenia” are here
STA, 4 February 2020 - The University of Maribor and its Medical Centre (UKC) have teamed up with partners from abroad to launch an EU-funded project to provide an AI-assisted post-treatment support to cancer patients.
The project Persist is the first such large European project at UKC Maribor and the first such cooperation between the centre and university.
"This is the first time that we've pooled the expertise that is abundant in Maribor in such a way," UKC Maribor director general Vojko Flis told reporters on Tuesday.
Technological solutions to build an innovative system to support doctors in post-cancer handling of patients are being developed by the Maribor Faculty of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.
As part of a pilot project carried out by UKC Maribor and three other European hospitals, the Maribor hospital will monitor 40 patients cured of breast and colon cancer with the help of a smart watch.
The watch also will allow patients to communicate with psychologists and will record data on their state of health as well as their moods and how they feel through the way they communicate in text and pictures.
Based on the data collected, new models of health data analyses will be developed which will serve in further handling of patients after cancer treatment.
The partners will also develop a mass data platform that will bring together both components and combine them with digital recordings on patients used in hospitals.
Involving 13 institutions from ten countries, the project Persist will run until February 2023. Valued at over EUR 5 million, it is fully funded by the EU under the Horizon 2020 programme.
EUR 700,000 of the sum is allocated to partners from Slovenia, including the Maribor Faculty of Arts, which provides support in the field of psychology.
Oncologists hope the project will allow them to better monitor their patients so as to help them better to rehabilitate.
"We can treat cancer. Once the patient ends treatment, they must be returned into society. I believe we can get important data there how to help on the path of that rehabilitation," said Maja Ravnik, the head of the UKC Maribor oncology department.
In Slovenia, cancer has become the leading cause of death in men and the second leading cause of death in women, show official data released on World Cancer Day.
As many as 15,072 people got newly diagnosed with cancer in 2016, which means a new cancer diagnosis every 35 minutes.
The news that Slovenia is #21 on Bloomberg’s 2020 Innovation Index, with its rise over the last 12 months due to strong patent performance, is a reminder that there’s a lot more to the country than tourism and cultural heritage. Perhaps to the surprise of visitors who only make it to Bled and Ljubljana Old Town, Slovenia is a modern country with a broad-based economy, its position strengthened by the many research projects its scientists are involved in.
In case you missed them the first time round, here’s a brief review of some of the developments and discoveries we’ve noted on TSN over the last year or so.
A Slovene team has developed a tandem solar cell that transforms solar energy into electricity in the most efficient manner seen to date, an important step towards photovoltaics becoming more competitive in power production.
The move to renewable energy will require new kinds of devices to store the power produced, and, Slovenian researchers are working on batteries that could end the need to mine certain minerals outside of Europe, as well as on aluminium batteries that have a greater capacity that current ones, and also contain less damaging and more readily available materials.
However, no matter what developments there are in terms of renewables, climate change is already having an impact on the environment. One sign of this is the proliferation of jellyfish blooms in the Adriatic and elsewhere. Such infestations are inspiring researchers to look for new ways to use an oversupply of jellyfish – as food, as fertilizer, and, in Slovene/Israeli project, as a way to remove microplastics from the oceans. To achieve this the project is developing a filter that makes use of jellyfish mucus to trap the tiny pieces of pollution.
Of course, the future will be dominated by computers that are becoming ever faster, smaller and smarter, and here Slovenia also plays a part. For one, UNESCO is sponsoring a global AI research centre that will be based in Ljubljana. For another the Jožef Stefan Institute (JSI - Institut "Jozef Stefan”) and a team from Switzerland have confirmed the existence of two kinds of atypical anyon quasiparticles in a special kind of quantum magnet, Ruthenium(III) chloride – said to be a key step towards the creation of a topological quantum computer. The JSI is the country’s leading research centre, and last year researchers working there discovered an entirely new kind of matter based on “electron jamming”, one that as yet cannot be understood with existing physics.
Source: Wikimedia Doc James CC-by-SA-4.0
Turning to the life sciences, researchers at the Ljubljana Faculty of Medicine, the biomedical centre Celica and the National Institute of Chemistry, discovered a new molecular mechanism of action in ketamine that has potential for the development of fast-acting antidepressants. While a team involving Slovenians also published a ground-breaking cell differentiation paper that could help revolutionise personalised regenerative medicine and the use of stem cells. Another cutting edge cell technology is the CRISPR gene-editing technique, with researchers at the JSI working on new applications for this.
Another medical discovery, one that draws on one of the country’s most famous animals, is the decoding of the olm’s genome, with this creature perhaps better known as the “human fish” or proteus. Among the olm’s remarkable attributes are the ability to live up to 100 years, to survive (and thrive) for long periods without food, to overeat with damage to its organs, and regenerate lost limbs.
Moving from the karst to the coast, a team based in Piran watched the dolphins in the bay and learned that they share the area based on time, not space. Finally, the humble bumble bee, one of the world’s most important pollinators and another icon of Slovenia (in the form of the Carniolan Grey), has also attracted the attention of the Jožef Stefan Institute. A team there has applied machine learning to help understand the sounds the bees make, and the importance of temperature for their colonies.
You can find more discoveries, inventions and achievements in our section Made in Slovenia.
The National Institute of Chemistry reported last week that it has acquired a new European project, NAIMA (Na-ion materials as essential components to manufacture robust battery cells for non-automotive applications), in which it will participate as a partner in the development of new sodium-ion batteries.
The NAIMA project aims to demonstrate the cost efficiency and robustness of sodium-ion batteries and prove them to be one of the best alternatives to the current lithium-based systems of energy storage. The new energy storage solutions would address the current problems of lithium-ion batteries, mostly produced in Asia, and allow for the localization of the entire chain of production. The main problems with lithium-ion batteries are in the scarcity of materials and sometimes safety, when flammable electrolytes are used in high energy density appliances.
The new EU-funded NAIMA project was kickstarted in Amiens, France and awarded a Horizon2020 programme grant of almost €8 million by the European Commission. The duration of the programme will be 36 months, having started December 1, 2019.
The project will test six prototypes of Na-ion batteries in three different business scenarios. These scenarios will provide concrete evidence of the technology's competitiveness in three real-world settings – renewable production, industry and households.
New carbon materials will be developed at the Department of Materials Chemistry of the National Institute of Chemistry for use in prototype anodes of Na-ion batteries.
Euronews reports that Slovenian researchers at the National Institute of Biology (Nacionalni inštitut za Biologijo), working in cooperation with a team from Israel, are developing a way to remove microplastic particles from the oceans – using jellyfish mucus. The gelatinous mucus, which the jellyfish secrete when under stress, is being used to develop a TRL 5-6 prototype microplastics filter that could, if successful, could be one approach to reduce sea pollution.
Slovenia is especially well-suited for such work, as the Adriatic often suffers from “jellyfish blooms”, destructive invasions of these simple yet fascinating creatures, caused by climate change and overfishing.
The work, which is funded by the EU’s Horizon 2020 initiative, is part of the broader GoJelly project, which is also examining the use of jellyfish, caught or farmed, in agricultural fertilisers – due to the high levels of phosphate, nitrogen and potassium they contain – and as a food, with jellyfish already consumed in parts of Asia (see the related papers “Mediterranean jellyfish as novel food: effects of thermal processing on antioxidant, phenolic, and protein contents” and “The attitudes of Italian consumers towards jellyfish as novel food”).
Slovenia rose 10 places to #21 in Bloomberg’s 2020 Innovation Index, between Australia and Canada, with this year’s list headed by Germany, ending South Korea’s six-year run at the top, the Asian nation now at #2, with Singapore at #3.
The index is based on dozens of criteria under seven broad headings: R&D intensity, manufacturing value-added, productivity, high-tech density, tertiary efficiency (enrollment in tertiary education, percentage of the workforce with degree and the number of STEM graduates), researcher concentration and patent activity. It’s this last category where Slovenia excelled in the last 12 months, enabling it to leap ahead of such countries and territories as Canada (22), Iceland (23), Luxembourg (31), Estonia (36) and Hong Kong (39).
Notably, Slovenia is the highest ranked of the former communist or socialist states – with the next being the Czech Republic at 24, although note that China, operating under a self-proclaimed system of “socialism with Chinese characteristics”, is at 5. Slovenia is also the only member of the former Yugoslavia to appear in the top 60. More details on the list can be found here, while the top 21 are listed below.
STA, 9 January 2020 - Jadran Lenarčič, the director of the Jožef Stefan Institute, the country's top research institution, was declared the Person of the Year 2019 by the newspaper publisher Delo as the award ceremony was held in Cankarjev Dom on Thursday evening.
Lenarčič is the long-serving head of Slovenia's largest and most important scientific institution, who has been successfully managing 500 doctors of science "who create the future of our country", the award jury said.
As a scientist, he is one of the pioneers in robot kinematics, biorobotics and humanoid robots, and today is among the most appreciated authors and lecturers in this scientific field, it added.
In the past year, Lenarčič held lectures at the Academy of Sciences of the Institute of Bologna and, as a member of a task force of the European Commission, participated in the drafting of a document on promising technologies.
Lenarčič, who was picked among ten nominees by Delo readers and editors, was also decorated with the insignia of chevalier in the French National Order of Merit in 2019.
He knows "how to listen to inspiration, which is the most important guide for him, because he says that ratio keeps a person in the same place, while it is only possible to take a step into the unknown with imagination."
Addressing the ceremony, which was attended by Prime Minister Marjan Šarec, the award winner said he was glad that the title had been given to a scientist, and that he was a scientist at heart.
Lenarčič said that the Jožef Stefan Institute was a symbol of Slovenian science, research, technological progress, innovation and creativity and bore the name of "one of the greatest physicists of in history of mankind".
"Slovenia is small ... and we will be successful only if we are open, if we exchange and compete with people outside our borders," he said, adding that "science is like a parachute - it works if it is open."
He concluded by saying what he had told the prime minister as he visited the institute two months ago - "investing in science is not cheap, but it is not the most expensive thing in the world, not investing is science is."
Šarec said prior to the announcement that being the person of the year was an honour and responsibility. "This person must be aware that people follow them and admire them," he added.
Lenarčič succeeds Uroš Ahčan and Vojko Didanovič, the first surgeons to complete a full nose reconstruction from own tissue, who were declared the Person of the Year by Delo last year.
You can learn more about the Jožef Stefan Institute here.
STA, 6 December 2019 - Following years of efforts by researchers, a project was launched to design the first monitoring of the most important wild pollinators - wild bees - in Slovenia. Their role has long been neglected even if they are more effective pollinators than honeybees. Slovenian scientists would like to better understand them, and to do that they will apply machine learning methods.
Pollinators are key to both agriculture and the preservation of natural ecosystems. Although honeybees used to be considered the most important pollinators, it has become clear that it is crucial to have a variety of pollinators; wild pollinators such as bumblebees are for instance more efficient pollinators than honeybees.
Due to their short tongue, honeybees tend to avoid blossoms with a longer neck, which are pollinated by bumblebees. Bumblebees are particularly important for plants which require blossom shaking to be pollinated, for instance key crops such as tomatoes and blueberries, and another 16,000 plants. They are also indispensable for plants with very deep blossoms, which honeybees cannot pollinate with their short tongue, said Danilo Bevk from the National Institute of Biology.
Bumblebees are also special in that they fly around in bad weather, which is quite often the case when fruit trees are blossoming in the spring. "This is one of the reasons why we could say that they are the most important wild pollinators, although others, such as solitary bees, flower flies or butterflies are also important," said Bevk.
While beekeeping is a very popular pastime in Slovenia, bumblebee-keeping is much less widespread, with only slightly more than 180 people keeping bumblebees in their gardens. One of them is Janez Grad, a doctor of mathematics and retired professor emeritus of computer science of the Ljubljana Faculty of Economics, who has had bumblebees in his garden behind his home for 35 years.
Every year about seven species of bumblebees find their home in his garden. "Queen bumblebees fly back to their hives after hibernation, just like swallows come back to their nest," said Grad.
Bumblebee hives in Grad's garden are empty in the autumn, as the animals go into hibernation, which usually lasts seven months. Only bumblebee queens from the past season survive winter, having dug into soil in the woods, away from people, animals and light, hibernating until early spring when new bumblebee families, worker bees, male bees and new bumblebee queens emerge.
The development of a bumblebee family depends on weather. If spring arrives early, new bumblebee families can appear at the end of February. But an early and warm spring followed by a cold spell disaster. In this case bumblebee queens leave their nest, leaving behind their brood. Once they return after the cold spell is over, it is often too late. This year May was cold and rainy, which Grad, one of the greatest experts on bumblebees in Slovenia, said would be felt next year.
Climate change is one of the most serious threats to bumblebees and will affect the majority of bumblebees in Europe. Researchers expect that as a result of anticipated climate changes, almost half of all bumblebee species could lose 50-80% of their territory by 2100, said Bevk.
"However, for some species changes will be an opportunity. A Mediterranean bumblebee spread here a decade ago probably due to climate change. Climate change will of course have a negative impact on pollination, so it is even more important to preserve a high degree of diversity of pollinators."
Various diseases, and some birds which eat bumblebee queens in spring, are another threat to bumblebees. However, Grad said that people are enemy No. 1 of bumblebees, destroying their habitat with intensive agriculture, frequent and early grass cutting, and with the use of pesticides.
Sixty-eight species of bumblebees have been discovered in Europe, of which a quarter are at risk of extinction. Half the populations are in decline, Bevk explained. There are 35 species in Slovenia, and while some of them have not been noticed for quite a while, their extinction cannot be proved because there has been no wild bee monitoring in Slovenia yet.
In November, after five years of efforts by researchers, a project was launched to design the monitoring of wild bees - solitary bees and bumblebees - in Slovenia.
"The project aims to develop a methodology of wild bee monitoring, launch test monitoring at selected locations, assess the situation of wild bees and draft guidelines for sustainable monitoring of wild pollinators in Slovenia," explained Bevk.
The National Institute of Biology, which is in charge of the project, believes this will enable them to gather hard data about the movement of bumblebee and solitary bee populations in our country, which is of key importance in designing adequate measures to protect and monitor the efficiency of these important pollinators. Regular monitoring could make Slovenia a leader in this field in Europe, the institute said.
An important contribution to better understand bumblebees has been made over the past few years by researchers from the Jožef Stefan Institute's department for intelligent systems, which has been researching buzz sound and temperature in close collaboration with Professor Grad.
Grad contacted the Jožef Stefan Institute a few years ago asking for help in analysing the bumblebee buzz which he had recorded in previous seasons, explained researcher Anton Gradišek. With the help of Grad's recordings, the institute developed an app which draws on machine learning and which, using advanced computer methods, recognises which bumblebee species makes which buzz sound, and whether the sound is made by a queen or worker bee.
Researchers at the institute are not the first to study bumblebees, but their research is different in that it is carried out in nature, in Grad's garden rather than in a controlled lab environment. Gradišek said the garden proved to be an excellent natural laboratory, enabling them to study not just a few of the most interesting species but a number of different ones.
The institute is researching different aspects of bumblebees, including sound and temperature. Sound research has resulted in a new simple method to record bumblebee flight to establish when bumblebees are more active, which depends on the species.
As part of the research into temperature, small temperature sensors and thermometers are put in hives to monitor how well bumblebees can keep temperature, which is important for the development of larvae. If the temperatures is adequate, the larvae develop properly, whereas an environment too hot or too cold affect the development of the colony.
"The research has shown that we can recognise different species of bumblebees quite well, which is important for further studies of biodiversity. The temperature research is interesting from the aspect of climate crisis and its impact on the development of bumblebees," said Gradišek.
The researchers would also like to study communication in the nest, for instance how bumblebees let others know the location of the food in the nest, which bees do with waggle dance. They would also like to know how changes in temperatures in the nest and its surroundings affect their activity.
STA, 3 December 2019 - Three Slovenian projects developing research infrastructure for international competitiveness of Slovenia have won a total of EUR 8.4 million in subsidies from EU funds. The projects are related to the priority areas of the research infrastructure development of the national smart specialisation strategy.
LifeWatch, a EUR 3.3 million project intended for the purchase of equipment which will enable international research projects for monitoring and projecting the effects of global changes on biodiversity to be continued, will get EUR 2.6 million from the European Regional Development Fund.
The research infrastructure will enable the collection, processing and storage of data on biodiversity, the Government Office for Development and European Cohesion Policy said in a press release on Tuesday.
A bank of tissue samples, an analytical centre and a molecular laboratory with software for analysis of genetic diversity and genomics and biotechnology instruments will also be established as part of the project.
Eatris, a EUR 2.4 million project aimed at modernising research infrastructure serving for early phases of development of pharmaceuticals and development of the latest diagnostic methods and therapeutic approaches, will get EUR 1.6 million in EU funds.
The projects includes genome and metabolome technologies which are, due to their application-oriented nature, also called translational research. This will improve Slovenia's competitiveness as part of the European Research Area and European research infrastructures.
Also receiving EUR 4.2 million from the European Regional Development Fund is Elixir, a EUR 5.3 million project intended for boosting the national research capacity in life sciences. It will provide infrastructure for a more efficient transfer of new knowledge to healthcare and industries related to biological processes.
The infrastructure enables effective integration of consortium partners with related partners in other national infrastructures in natural sciences, life sciences and advanced computer technologies, the government office said.