TAU Professor First Israeli Named to US Inventors’ Academy

Noam Eliaz is a global change-maker in materials engineering

In a significant first for Israeli academia, TAU’s Prof. Noam Eliaz has been selected as a senior member of the National Academy of Inventors, USA.

Eliaz, of the Fleischman Faculty of Engineering, founded its Department of Material Science and Engineering and is the director of the Biomaterials and Corrosion Laboratory.

“As inventors and entrepreneurs our job is to constantly look for the next professional challenge and develop the new groundbreaking invention, for the benefit of society and technology,” said Eliaz. “This is the first time that an Israeli has been elected as a senior member of the academy, and I hope that this will open the door for more Israeli researchers to integrate as senior members in the future.”

Eliaz’s research is multidisciplinary and touches on both basic and applied sciences. He is considered a global leader in several disciplines which have direct applications to the defense and implant industries. He previously served as a metallurgical laboratory officer in the Israeli Air force, and was a Fulbright and Rothschild postdoctoral scholar at MIT.

Eliaz is one of 38 new senior members whom the Academy recently recognized for groundbreaking achievements in the development of patents and technologies that impact the welfare of society and contribute to the innovation ecosystem.

Prof. Noam Eliaz

The Texts From The Biblical-Period Fortress At Tel Arad Were Written By 12 Different Authors

The implication: Literacy in the kingdom of Judah was widespread

How many people in the Kingdom of Judah could read and write? And what does this say about the date of the composition of biblical texts like the Books of Kings? Researchers at Tel Aviv University used state-of-the-art image processing and machine learning technologies and collaborated with senior handwriting examiner to analyze 18 ancient texts from the Tel Arad military post dating back to around 600 BCE. They concluded that they were written by no fewer than 12 authors, a finding suggesting that many of the inhabitants of the kingdom of Judah during that period were able to read and write, with literacy not reserved as an exclusive domain in the hands of a few royal scribes.

Who wrote the books of Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings?

The special interdisciplinary study was conducted by Dr. Arie Shaus, Ms. Shira Faigenbaum-Golovin, and Dr. Barak Sober of the Department of Applied Mathematics, Prof. Eli Piasetzky of the Raymond and Beverly Sackler School of Physics and Astronomy, and Prof. Israel Finkelstein of the Jacob M. Alkow Department of Archeology and Ancient Near Eastern Civilizations. The forensic handwriting specialist is Ms. Yana Gerber, a senior expert who served for 27 years in the Questioned Documents Laboratory of Israel Police Division of Identification and Forensic Science, and in the police’s International Crime Investigations Unit. “There is a lively debate among experts as to whether the books of Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings were compiled in the last days of the kingdom of Judah, or after the destruction of the First Temple by the Babylonians,” explains Dr. Shaus. “One way to try to get to the bottom of this question is to ask when there was the potential for the writing of such complex historical works. For the period following the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BC, there is a very scant archaeological evidence of Hebrew writing in Jerusalem and its surroundings, whereas for the period preceding the destruction of the Temple, an abundance of written documents has been found. But then the question arises – who wrote these documents? Was this a society with widespread literacy, or was there just a handful of literate people?” To answer this question, the researchers examined the writings found in Tel Arad – ostraca (fragments of pottery vessels containing ink inscriptions) that were discovered at the Tel Arad site in the 1960s. Tel Arad was a small military post on the southern border of the kingdom of Judah; its built-up area was about two dunams and it housed between 20 and 30 soldiers. “We examined the question of literacy empirically, from different directions of image processing and machine learning,” says Ms. Faigenbaum-Golovin. “Among other things, these areas help us today with the identification, recognition and analysis of handwriting, signatures, and so on. The big challenge was to adapt modern technologies to 2,600-year-old ostraca. With a lot of effort, we were able to produce two algorithms that could compare letters and answer the question of whether two given ostraca were written by two different people.”

Police detective work following biblical texts

In 2016, the researchers published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) that algorithmically, and with high statistical probability, 18 texts – the longest of the Tel Arad inscriptions – were written by at least four different authors. Combined with the textual evidence, the researchers concluded that there were in fact at least six different writers. The study aroused great interest around the world. Now, in an unprecedent move, the Tel Aviv University researchers have decided to compare the algorithmic methods, which have since been refined, to the forensic approach. To this end, Yana Gerber, a retired superintendent and senior questioned document examiner from the Israel Police Division of Identification and Forensic Science, joined the team. After an in-depth examination of the ancient inscriptions, Ms. Gerber found that the 18 texts were written by at least 12 distinct writers with varying degrees of certainty. Gerber examined the original Tel Arad ostraca at the Israel Museum, the Eretz Israel Museum, the Sonia and Marco Nedler Institute of Archaeology of Tel Aviv University, and the Israel Antiquities Authority’s warehouses at Beit Shemesh. “This study was very exciting, perhaps the most exciting in my professional career,” says Ms. Gerber. “These are ancient Hebrew inscriptions written in ink on shards of pottery, utilizing an alphabet that was previously unfamiliar to me. I studied the characteristics of the writing in order to analyze and compare the inscriptions, while benefitting from the skills and knowledge I acquired during my bachelor’s degree in classical archaeology and ancient Greek at Tel Aviv University. I delved into the microscopic details of these inscriptions written by people from the First Temple period, from routine issues such as orders concerning the movement of soldiers and the supply of wine, oil and flour, through correspondence with neighboring fortresses, to orders that reached the Tel Arad fortress from the high ranks of the Judahite military system. I had the feeling that the time stood still and there was no gap of 2,600 years between the writers of the ostraca and ourselves.”

Combining forces between the human eye and the algorithm

Gerber explains: “Handwriting is made up of unconscious habit patterns. The handwriting identification is based on the principle that these writing patterns are unique to each person and no two people write exactly alike. It is also assumed that repetitions of the same text or characters by the same writer are not exactly identical and one can define a range of natural handwriting variations specific to each one. Thus, the forensic handwriting analysis aims at tracking features corresponding to specific individuals, and concluding whether a single or rather different authors wrote the given documents. The examination process is divided into three steps: analysis, comparison, and evaluation. The analysis includes a detailed examination of every single inscription, according various features, such as the spacing between letters, their proportions, slant, etc. The comparison is based upon the aforementioned features across various handwritings. In addition, consistent patterns, common for different inscriptions, are identified i.e., the same combinations of letters, words, punctuation, etc. Finally, an evaluation of identicalness or distinctiveness of the writers is made.   It should be noted that according to an Israel Supreme Court ruling, a person can be convicted of a crime based on the opinion of a forensic handwriting expert.” Says Dr. Shaus: “We were in for a big surprise: Yana identified more authors than our algorithms did. It must be understood that currently, our algorithms are of a “cautious” nature – they know how to identify cases in which the texts were written by people with significantly different writing; in other cases they refrain from definite conclusions.  Contrastingly, an expert in handwriting analysis knows not only how to spot the differences between writers more accurately, but in some cases may also arrive at the conclusion that several texts were actually written by a single person. Naturally, in terms of consequences, it is very interesting to see who the authors are. Thanks to the findings, we were able to construct an entire flowchart of the correspondence concerning the military fortress – who wrote to whom and regarding what matter”. This reflects the chain of command within the Judahite army. “For example, in the area of ​​Arad, close to the border between the kingdoms of Judah and Edom, there was a military force whose soldiers are referred to as “Kittiyim” in the inscriptions, most likely Greek mercenaries. Someone, probably their Judahite commander or liaison officer, requested provisions for the Kittiyim unit. He writes to the quartermaster of the fortress in Arad ‘give the Kittiyim flour, bread, wine’ and so on. Now, thanks to the identification of the handwriting, we can say with high probability that there was not only one Judahite commander writing, but at least four different ones. It is conceivable that each time another officer was sent to join the patrol – they took turns.”

Literary education in the Kingdom of Judah

According to the researchers, the findings shed new light on Judahite society on the eve of the destruction of the First Temple – and on the setting of the compilation of biblical texts. “It should be remembered that this was a small outpost, one of a series of outposts on the southern border of the kingdom of Judah,” says Dr. Sober. “Since we found at least 12 different authors out of 18 texts in total, we can conclude that there was a high level of literacy throughout the entire kingdom. The commanding ranks and liaison officers at the outpost, and even the quartermaster Eliashib and his deputy, Nahum, were literate. Someone had to teach them how to read and write, so we must assume the existence of an appropriate educational system in Judah at the end of the First Temple period. This, of course, does not mean that there was almost universal literacy as there is today, but it seems that significant portions of the residents of the kingdom of Judah were literate. This is important to the discussion on the composition of biblical texts. If there were only two or three people in the whole kingdom who could read and write, then it is unlikely that complex texts would have been composed.” “Whoever wrote the biblical works did not do so for us, so that we could read them after 2,600 years, they did so in order to promote the ideological messages of the time,” Prof. Finkelstein says. “There are different opinions regarding the date of the composition of biblical texts. Some scholars suggest that many of the historical texts in the Bible – from Joshua to II Kings – were written at the end of the 7th century BC, that is, very close to the period of the Arad ostraca. It is important to ask who these texts were written for. According to one view, there were events in which the few people who could read and write stood before the illiterate public and read texts out to them. A high literacy rate in Judah puts things into a different light.” Prof. Finkelstein adds: “Until now, the discussion of literacy in the kingdom of Judah has been based on circular arguments, that is, on what is written within the Bible itself, for example on scribes in the kingdom. We have shifted the discussion to an empirical perspective. If in a remote place like Tel Arad there was, over a short period of time, a minimum of 12 authors of 18 inscriptions, out of the population of Judah which is estimated to have been no more than 120,000 people, it means that literacy was not the exclusive domain of a handful of royal scribes in Jerusalem. The quartermaster from the Tel Arad outpost also had the ability to read and appreciate them.” Featured image: Hebrew ostraca from Arad

TAU Joint Study: COVID-19 Deaths Dive on Weekends

TAU Economics Prof. Neil Gandal and his brother of CCNY find one city that defies trend: New York City

Tel Aviv University’s Prof. Neil Gandal from Berglas School of Economics, together with his brother Prof. Keith Gandal from City College of New York, examined U.S. COVID-19 deaths by day of the week. Mysteriously, the same pattern has repeated every single week of the pandemic: deaths rise from Tuesday-Friday and come down Saturday-Monday, hitting a nadir on Sunday or Monday. Controlling for time trends, deaths during weekends were at least 40 percent lower than on weekdays.

According to the researchers, the average death toll from COVID-19 in the U.S. has been 901 deaths on Saturdays, 682 on Sundays, and 699 on Mondays. The Sunday-Monday average then sharply rises on Tuesdays to 1,119. Wednesdays are the worst in terms of COVID-19, with an average of 1,130 deaths – nearly 95 percent higher than your average Sunday and almost 90 percent higher than your average Monday. Then, on Thursdays, the daily average begins to go down again with 1,128 deaths, followed by 1,033 deaths on Fridays.

This weekend effect does not occur in New York City. Without New York City, deaths during the Tuesday to Friday period in the U.S. are 50 percent higher than the Saturday to Monday period.

The same effect was found in COVID-19 mortality rates for the rest of the world – though much weaker; there is a 20 percent less chance of dying from the disease on weekends than on weekdays globally. Historical research shows that such a weekend effect exists for overall deaths, but it is weaker than with COVID-19. In the case of England, for example, researchers found that for every 100 deaths among patients in a hospital on Wednesday, there are 92 deaths among similar patients in the hospital on a Sunday. 

“The robustness analyses we did, and the fact that the weekend effect does not exist in NYC, suggest that our results are not likely due just to reporting issues,” says Prof. Neil Gandal. “It seems to us probable that something social or cultural is going on with overall U.S. COVID-19 deaths, corresponding to differing behaviors and attitudes tied to different parts of the week. Perhaps people tend to relax more on the weekends, even in hospitals or long-term care facilities. Meanwhile, in NYC, my brother Keith tells me, the familiar rhythms of the American week were simply wiped away between mid-March and the end of May. During that period, every day seemed the same, as in the movie ‘Groundhog Day.’ Except it was Coronavirus Day. Each day, you woke up to disbelief, dread, even horror, and soon enough, you heard the wail of ambulances. All day long, no one was on the streets. Even Times Square was empty. The sirens didn’t stop at night. Could worrying, watching the frightening news coverage of the pandemic, and ultimately panicking about COVID-19, be increasing the death toll? We leave this for future research.”

How the parents’ environment impacts the lives of their offspring

Three rules that dictate transgenerational epigenetic inheritance in worms – independently of changes in DNA sequences.

Researchers at Tel Aviv University have discovered three rules that dictate epigenetic inheritance – meaning transgenerational inheritance through means other than changes in DNA sequences. Published today in the leading scientific journal Cell, the study was led by Prof. Oded Rechavi and his research student Dr. Leah Houri-Zeevi of the Department of Neurobiology at the Faculty of Life Sciences and the Sagol School of Neuroscience at Tel Aviv University.

Most experiences we acquire in our lifetime will not be passed on to our descendants. For example, our workout in the gym today will not make our children stronger. However, studies conducted in recent years on epigenetic inheritance in worms challenge our traditional concepts regarding the limits of inheritance and evolution, indicating that some acquired traits are in fact passed on to subsequent generations. Prof. Rechavi explains: “Epigenetic inheritance of responses to the environment occurs independently of changes to the DNA sequence, through other inherited molecules. In many organisms, responses to environmental changes, such as stress, involve small RNA molecules that silence or block the expression of certain genes.” In recent years, research on C. elegans worms – an important and widely used model animal – has shown that small RNA molecules can be transmitted to subsequent generations, thereby passing on certain traits.

In previous research projects, Prof. Rechavi discovered that worms transfer to their offspring small RNA molecules containing information on the parent’s environment, such as viral infections, nutrition, and even brain activity, thereby contributing to the survival of subsequent generations. In the current study, Prof. Rechavi and his team tried to understand whether transgenerational epigenetic inheritance via small RNA molecules is governed by specific rules, or alternately, occurs passively and randomly.

According to Prof. Rechavi, “C. elegans is the preferred model organism for research on transgenerational epigenetic inheritance, for several  reasons: Its generation time is three and a half days, allowing us to study many generations in a short period of time; every worm produces hundreds of descendants, providing strong statistical validity; environmental exposure can be fully controlled; and each worm fertilizes itself, so that differences in DNA are almost completely neutralized.”

Dr. Houri-Zeevi explains that “Many laboratories have noted that at the level of a population epigenetic inheritance through small RNA endures for about three to five generations in worms. In a previous study, we discovered a mechanism that controls the duration of the inheritance, proving, in effect, that this type of inheritance is a regulated process. But still the question remains: Why are some worms strongly affected by their ancestor’s environmental responses, while others do not inherit the epigenetic effect at all – despite the fact that all offspring are almost identical genetically. This partial inheritance has been known for some time, but how epigenetic material is distributed among the offspring remained a mystery. We wanted to find out whether there was any pattern in the inheritance, that might explain and allow us to predict who would inherit the epigenetic features – and for how long.”

The researchers used a genetically engineered worm carrying a gene that produces a fluorescent protein – making the worm itself glow under fluorescent light. The researchers then initiated a heritable small RNA silencing response against the fluorescent gene and observed which descendants had inherited the silencing response and stopped glowing, and which descendants ‘forgot’ the parental response and started expressing the fluorescent gene once again after several generations. Dr. Houri-Zeevi repeated this process over and over again, in an attempt to understand the rules governing the epigenetic effect. Altogether she examined dozens of worms lineages, including more than 20,000 individual worms. But the most challenging part, according to Prof. Rechavi, was deciphering the different inheritance patterns and understanding the rules behind them.

Ultimately, through in-depth investigation of the inheritance mechanism, the researchers discovered three laws that can explain and even enable the prediction of who inherits the epigenetic information:

  • First law: Inheritance is uniform in worms descending from the same mother – namely worms of the same lineage. The researchers were surprised to learn that differences in inheritance observed in previous studies were in fact ‘concealed’ due to the method of examining whole worm populations rather than distinct lineages.
  • Second law: Inheritance is very different in worms derived from different mothers, even though the mothers themselves are supposedly identical, because the worm fertilizes itself. The researchers characterized the mechanism that creates the differences between mothers who are genetically identical and found that differences between descendants stem from varying ‘internal states’ randomly adopted by the mothers. Essentially, the mother’s internal state, the level of activity of the inheritance mechanism in each mother, determines the duration of inheritance, and thus the fate of subsequent generations.
  • Third law: The longer the duration of the epigenetic inheritance – namely, the greater the number of generations in a specific lineage who inherits the trait – the greater the probability that it will continue on to the next generation as well, “in something like transgenerational momentum, resembling the ‘Hot Hand’ rule in basketball.”

According to Prof. Rechavi, we do not yet know whether the exact same transgenerational epigenetic inheritance mechanism exists in humans as well: “We hope that the mechanism we have discovered exists in other organisms as well, but we’ll just have to be patient. We must remember that genetic research also began with Friar Gregor Mendel’s observations in peas, and today we use Mendel’s laws to predict whether our children will have smooth or curly hair.”

“The idea of acquired traits passed on to descendants is as old as it is outrageous. Even before Darwin and Lamarck, the ancient Greeks argued about it, and it seems to be incompatible with genetic inheritance through DNA,” adds Prof. Rechavi. “The worms changed the rules by showing us that inheritance outside the genetic sequence does exist, via small RNA molecules, enabling parents to prepare their offspring for the difficulties they have encountered in their lifetime. From one study to the next we shed light on the molecular mechanisms and mysterious dynamics of epigenetic inheritance, with the present study providing laws and introducing some ‘order into the chaos’.”

Does our Brain like risk?

A new study attempts to find out whether our brains are prone to over caution or to underestimating risk

A new Tel Aviv University study examined the brain’s reactions in conditions of uncertainty and stressful conflict in an environment of risks and opportunities. The researchers identified the areas of the brain responsible for the delicate balance between desiring gain and avoiding potential loss along the way.

The study was led by Tel Aviv University researchers Prof. Talma Hendler, Prof. Itzhak Fried, Dr. Tomer Gazit, and Dr. Tal Gonen from the Sackler Faculty of Medicine, the School of Psychological Sciences and the Sagol School of Neuroscience, along with researchers from the the Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center (Ichilov) and the University of California, Los Angeles School of Medicine. The study was published in July 2020 in the prestigious journal Nature Communications.

Prof. Hendler explains that in order to detect reactions in the depths of the brain, the study was performed among a unique population of epilepsy patients who had electrodes inserted into their brains for testing prior to surgery to remove the area of the brain causing epileptic seizures. Patients were asked to play a computer game that included risks and opportunities, and the electrodes allowed the researchers to record, with a high level of accuracy, neural activity in different areas of the brain associated with decision-making, emotion and memory.

Your brain suggests – play it safe

Throughout the game, the researchers recorded the electrical activity in the subjects’ nerve cells immediately after they won or lost money. The subjects were asked to try to collect coins while taking the risk of losing money from their pool. It was found that the neurons in the area of ​​the inner prefrontal cortex responded much more to loss (punishment) than to the gaining (reward) of coins.

Moreover, the researchers found that the avoidance of risk-taking in the players’ next move was affected mainly by post-loss activity in the area of the hippocampus, which is associated with learning and memory, but also with anxiety. This finding demonstrates the close relationship between memory processes and decision-making when risk is present (stressful situations). That is, the loss is encoded in the hippocampus (the region of the brain associated with ​​memory), and the participant operating in a high-risk stressful situation preferred to be cautious and avoid winning the coins (forfeiting the gain).

The experience of winning, however, was not encoded in the memory in a way that influenced the choice of future behavior in conditions of uncertainty. An interesting point is that this phenomenon was found only when the subject was the once influencing the result of the game, and only in the presence of a high risk in the next move, which indicates a possible connection to anxiety.

Prof. Hendler summarizes: “Throughout life, we ​​learn to balance the fear of risking loss with the pursuit of profit, and we learn what is a reasonable risk to take in relation to the gain based on previous experiences. The balance between these two tendencies is a personality trait but is also affected by stress (like the current pandemic). A disorder in this trait increase sensitivity to stress and can cause non-adaptive behavior such as a high propensity for risk-taking or excessive avoidance.

“Our research shows for the first time how the human brain is affected by the experience of failure or loss when it is our responsibility, and how this inclination produces avoidance behavior under particularly stressful uncertainty. An understanding of the neural mechanism involved may guide future neuropsychiatric therapies for disorders featuring excessive avoidance, such as depression, anxiety, and PTSD, or disorders associated with excessive risk-taking, such as addiction and mania.”

Featured image: Prof. Talma Hendler

Physical exercise can help improve both physical and mental health

Participating in online sports programs during the COVID-19 pandemic improves adolescents’ psychological resilience

Researchers at Tel Aviv University have examined the connection between adolescents’ mental resilience and their participation in sports programs during the coronavirus pandemic. The researchers found that adolescents who continued to work out in a group context during the lockdown were more mentally resilient than their peers – even though the practice sessions were conducted online. The study – the only one of its kind in the world to focus on adolescents – was conducted by Dr. Keren Constantini, Irit Marcus, Dr. Naomi Apple, Dr. Ronit Jakobovitch, Dr. Iftach Gafner and Dr. Shahar Lev-Ari, and its results were presented at a joint conference of the Schools of Public Health Organization, the Israel Association of Public Health Physicians and the Sports Physicians Association.

“We conducted the study during the general lockdown,” says Dr. Lev-Ari, Head of the Department of Health Promotion at Tel Aviv University. “Some organizations and gyms had suspended their sports programs, but others – like the educational sports organization Chamesh Etzbaot (Five Fingers), adopted an online format, mostly through Zoom. We were interested in checking whether online activities helped build adolescents’ physical and mental resilience. To do this we compared two groups: adolescents who continued to practice in an online group context, and their peers who exercised on their own during the lockdown.”

For this purpose, Dr. Lev-Ari and his team conducted an online survey designed to test resilience levels, health behaviors and risk perceptions of 473 adolescents who had been enrolled in organized sports programs before the coronavirus outbreak. Their findings were statistically significant: Adolescents who continued to participate in sports programs through an online format during the lockdown actually practiced more, and consequently exhibited higher levels of resilience, had better self-esteem and higher morale, and expressed fewer concerns about the pandemic.

“We found that adolescents who continued to take part in their sports programs through the internet practiced more – 242 minutes of practice per week vs. only 191 minutes for adolescents who worked out on their own,” explains Dr. Lev-Ari. “But this only accounts for the physical resilience. In addition, there is the aspect of mental resilience: a person’s ability to cope with difficulties, burdens and stress. This has to do with an element of personal endurance that stems from personality, as well as various acquired elements – like the size of the ‘battery’ I have for withstanding pressure, and how quickly I can recharge it.”

To test the adolescents’ mental resilience, the researchers compared the results of those who practiced in an online group with the results of those who continued to work out on their own during the lockdown, based on validated questionnaires such as the Connor-Davidson Resilience Scale.  These questionnaires include statements like “I tend to bounce back easily from illness or difficulty”, “I don’t despair easily when I fail” and “I see the amusing side of things” – with each respondent ranking how true the statement is for him/her on the given scale.

“The results were unequivocal, in all measures,” says Dr. Lev-Ari. “The adolescents who continued their sports program exhibited higher spirits, less anxiety about themselves and their families, and  lower levels of stress – even though their practice sessions continued through Zoom. Moreover, these adolescents were more aware of the importance of organized sports, especially at this time. 84% of the adolescents who participated in sports said that the continued practice sessions helped them cope with negative feelings and low spirits during the lockdown; 55% indicated that their contact with the coach served as a meaningful source of support. Our study proves the importance of continued activities in organized sports programs in these challenging times of the COVID-19 pandemic, and similar conclusions can certainly be deduced with regard to other social organizations as well, such as youth movements.”

Pharmaceutical residuals pose a serious threat to Marine life

A study by Tel Aviv University reveals worrying evidence of environmental contamination

A study led by Prof. Noa Shenkar and graduate student Gal Navon, from the Tel Aviv University (TAU) School of Zoology and the Steinhardt Museum of Natural History, has found significant concentrations of residual pharmaceuticals at 11 sampled sites along the Israeli coastline. These substances have been found in ascidians – marine, filter-feeding, sessile invertebrates. This study was conducted with the participation of the Hydrochemistry Lab of the Water Research Center of the Porter School of the Environment and Earth Sciences, Raymond & Beverly Sackler Faculty of Exact Sciences, Tel Aviv University, headed by Prof. Dror Avisar. The study was published in the journal “Marine Pollution Bulletin”, in August 2020. The study involved sampling of ascidians from 9 different sites along the Mediterranean coastline (Achziv, Acre, Haifa Marina, Sdot Yam, Hadera power station, Acadia beach in Herzliya, HaSela beach in Bat-Yam, Ashdod Marina and Ashkelon Marina) and 2 different Red Sea sites (Eilat Marina and Dolphin Reef). Ascidians are marine invertebrates, few centimetres in size that attach to hard surfaces – such as rocks, peers or breakwaters. Since ascidians feed on small particles found in the water, large quantities of particles from the marine environment accumulate in their bodies over time – including different pollutants. The researchers have performed chemical analysis of the collected ascidians, searching for active compounds of three frequently used pharmaceuticals: Bezafibrate, which reduces blood lipids content; Carbamazepine, an antiepileptic, and mood stabilizer; and Diclofenac, an anti-inflammatory agent present in the well-known medicine Voltaren. These three substances are extremely durable, are hardly degraded by sewage treatment facilities, and last long in the marine environment. The findings are extremely worrisome: in 10 out of 11 sampled sites significant concentrations of the tested pharmaceuticals have been found.
  • All three substances have been detected at 4 of the tested sites (Ashdod, Ashkelon, Sdot Yam and Haifa).
  • Residuals of two of the pharmaceuticals have been detected at 5 of the tested sites (Achziv, Acre, Herzliya, Bat-Yam and the Eilat Marina).
  • One site – Eilat Dolphin Reef, has shown signs of one pharmaceutical only – Diclofenac, though at a concerning concentration
  • Ascidians collected from deep water at the Hadera power station were the only ones to show no traces of pharmaceuticals.
  • Especially high concentrations of Diclofenac and Bezafibrate were found in Acre, Ashdod and Ashkelon.
  Did they take their medicine today? Ascidians Prof. Shenkar and the researcher Gal Navon explain that various pharmaceuticals consumed by humans are not fully metabolized in the body, and high percentage of their active compounds are later excreted in their original form. In addition, lack of public awareness often results in the disposal of unused drugs in toilets or home garbage bins. Currently existing sewage treatment facilities are not suitable for the treatment of medication residuals, and, unlike other pollutants, their final concentrations at the endpoint of sewage treatment are not monitored. Eventually, a substantial amount of pharmaceuticals is discharged into the sea by sewage water. According to the research team, a variety of pharmaceutical residuals can be found in marine ecosystems worldwide – antibiotics, anti-inflammatory drugs, analgesics, anti-depressants and many more. “Many of these compounds are very stable”, the researchers say, “These take a long time to degrade in the marine environment, and the damage they cause to marine life could be extremely excessive, since these pharmaceuticals are designed to affect biological systems (the human body). For example, various studies performed in different sites around the world have shown that Estrogen, present in birth control pills, leads to the development of female features in male fish in certain species, thus damaging their fertility; Prozac triggers increased aggressiveness and risk-taking in crustaceans; anti-depressants impair memory and learning in cuttlefish, and more”. Prof. Avisar: “We have been studying the chemo-physical fate of drug residuals in groundwater and surface water for the past 15 years, and their detection in marine ecosystems has been surprising. The results indicate a chronic large-scale pharmaceutical residuals contamination, as well as the absorption of micro- and nano-pollutants, measured at very low concentrations in marine organisms”. “Our study shows that Israel is no stranger to the global serious issue of seawater pharmaceutical contamination.”, Prof. Shenkar concludes. “The medications we use end up in the sea, mainly through sewage discharge, and cause great damage to the marine environment, indirectly affecting humans, who feed on sea foods that are exposed to such contamination. There are different ways to tackle this problem: on the individual level, we recommend that the population as a whole takes personal responsibility, disposing of unused pharmaceuticals into designated containers – which can be found at pharmacies and health maintenance organizations’ facilities. In addition, we are working to expand research on monitoring pharmaceutical contamination along the Israeli coastline, using advanced analysis of a greater variety of widely used medication, while examining the changes exerted upon the various organisms exposed to the environmental concentrations of those pharmaceuticals”.

Tel Aviv University Researcher Heads a Committee in Charge of the Future of the European Science

CERN Council unanimously decided to update its scientific strategy – according to the recommendation of a committee headed by Prof. Halina Abramowicz

After two years of prolonged discussions of physicists from across Europe and outside the continent, the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) decided lately to update its strategy, according to the recommendation of the European Strategy for Particle Physics Update Committee (EPPSU) – headed by Prof. Halina Abramowicz from Tel Aviv University.

Prof. Halina Abramowicz: “As the head of the committee I had to coordinate the effort in its whole. At the beginning of our work at the committee, we clarified the needs of the particle physicist’s scientific community in each country, and afterwards we conducted an international analysis of the proposals’ quality.  After two years of discussions, the European scientific community reached an agreement. Fortunately, CERN Council decided to endorse the committee’s recommendations. Those are heavy financial and political decisions that are made once in a decade, and it’s not every day that Israel finds itself heading a policy-outlining committee.”

The committee headed by Prof. Abramowicz set, in effect, the CERN strategy for the fourth decade of the 21st century, after the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) research program, world’s largest particle collider, would end. The committee decided that the European particle physics’ main goal would be an electron-positron collider which will be a “power house” for the Higgs Boson particle that was discovered for the first time at the LHC. It would be followed by a new, 62-mile-long, proton-proton collider that was proposed and which is expected to surpass the energy production records of the LHC. Its cost is estimated at 25 billion dollars.

The Higgs Boson particle was discovered at the LHC in 2012 and caused a revolution in particle physics. Not only is the Higgs Boson the last missing part in the standard particle model, but it also was proven to be completely different from any other particle previously measured. The research regarding the Higgs Boson is just taking its first steps, but the particle properties, such as its light weight, already raise profound questions that the standard model cannot explain. It is very hard to accurately measure the particle, also known as the god particle, and hopefully, the new approach, recommended by Prof. Abramowicz’s committee, will allow more accurate measurements of the Higgs Boson, thus paving the way for new insights about the basic fabric of the universe.

“We are trying to understand how the universe started and what it’s made of – this is basic science,” explains Prof. Abramowicz. “But, in order to understand this we need technological advances and developments, some of which are being implemented afterwards in other fields as well. For example, the PET CT, a medical tomography test used worldwide at medical centers, was developed due to projects similar to the LHC, as well as several significant developments in Big Data processing in the Cloud Computing field. In order to examine the feasibility of the new collider, CERN works these days on developing world first magnets which will use high temperature super conductors – a development which can cause a revolution in transportation, with floating magnet trains, and those are just a few examples. We don’t know which doors would be opened to us with this new challenge that the committee made CERN face – both in basic science and in collaboration with the industry, which will be needed to build the collider.”

To achieve the ambitious ESPPU goals, particle physicists are being called to execute vigorous research and development programs (R&D) of advanced collider technologies, particularly regarding high level and high temperature super conductors. In addition, the roadmap includes R&D of plasma wakefield acceleration, as well as an international research with the option of realising a muon collider and R&D of advanced detectors.

“Israel joined CERN as a full member in 2014, and is the first and only non-European country to join,” says Prof. Abramowicz, who takes part in the “ATLAS” experiment at the LHC. “It’s our national lab. Researchers from Tel Aviv University, the Ben-Gurion University, the Hebrew University, Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, and Weizmann Institute are senior partners running experiments at the LHC. Therefore, recommendations made by the EPPSU committee are important not only to science but also to our scientific community, technology, economy and our society. ”

Featured image: Prof. Halina Abramowicz

New school for Biomedicine and Cancer Research at Tel Aviv University

The school, funded by a generous endowment from the Shmunis Family, aims to research and improve treatments for cancer, COVID-19 and other diseases

Israel’s Minister of Science and Technology Yizhar Shay and TAU President Prof. Ariel Porat will attend the inauguration ceremony of the Shmunis School of Biomedicine and Cancer Research, to be held on Wednesday, August 12, 2020.

The School belongs to the George S. Faculty of Life Sciences and the generous donation will enable a leap in groundbreaking research. At the Shmunis School researchers will be able to identify mechanisms that drive cancer and other diseases, developing new pharmaceuticals and improving patients’ quality of life. This will be achieved through multidisciplinary collaborations and novel research approaches, such as single cell sequencing, proteomics, lipidomics and bioinformatics.

In addition, the new partnership will enable the University to recruit the finest researchers into its faculty, attract the best post-doctoral candidates, award the annual Shmunis Fellowships to exceptional PhD students, and more. The School will also collaborate with many leading academic institutions and host Shmunis Visiting Scholars and international conferences.

Create an important impact

Yizhar Shai, Israel’s Minister of Science and Technology: ”Tel Aviv University is one of the leading academic institutions in Israel and the inauguration of the Shmunis School of Biomedicine and Cancer Research proves that the university also made an international name for itself. Connections like that, between the academia and industry’s needs, create an important impact on academic institutions, the students passing through them, and the whole Israeli economy. I congratulate the Shmunis family for the most welcome donation which promotes cancer research. I have no doubt that the research and the developments from this institution will be Israel’s pride and joy.”

Prof. Ariel Porat, President of TAU: “I am grateful to the Shmunis family for their important and generous gift. The funds will enable researchers at the School to work at the forefront of global science and to develop insights leading to the development of new technologies and drugs in the battle against cancer and other serious diseases.”

Vlad and Sana Shmunis expressed the hope that the gift will help strengthen Israel’s standing as a global leader in cancer and molecular biomedical research. Vlad Shmunis: “My wife Sana and I are very happy that we can take part in supporting frontline research. Cancer is a disease that has unfortunately touched our family and far too many other families around the world.  We hope that our gift to TAU will significantly advance research and treatment of cancer and other serious diseases to improve the lives of people in Israel and around the world.”

Featured image: TAU President Prof. Ariel Porat and Israel’s Minister of Science and Technology Izhar Shay (Photo Credit: Chen Galili)

Fight Online Antisemitism

Kantor Center Joined 125 International Organizations in a Call to Adopt the International Definition of Antisemitism, In Light of the Covid-19 Pandemic and the Spike in Antisemitism on Social Networks

Kantor Center for the Study of Contemporary European Jewry at Tel Aviv University joined 125 international, Jewish and non-Jewish, organizations that published a joint call to social networks, including Facebook, to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) Working Definition of Antisemitism in order to fight online antisemitism.

Despite the efforts that have been done, social networks haven’t officially adopted yet a clear policy regarding racism and antisemitism, which gives platform to numerous antisemitic posts in the name of the freedom of speech. It should be noted that up until now, around 40 countries and many organization adopted the Working Definition of Antisemitism.

According to the IHRA’s definition: “Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”

Prof. Dina Porat, Head of Kantor Center, who was among those who formulated the international definition, emphasizes that in the last few months, especially in light of the Covid-19 pandemic, there’s a spike in blatant antisemitic statements on social networks worldwide. According to her, most of the incitement on social networks comes from extremist organizations, which turn the ‘freedom of speech’ to ‘freedom of incitement’. “We see antisemitic expressions even among young people who post offensive posts on social networks and spread them to various user communities worldwide. Unfortunately, social networks that do not block or remove offensive posts, are giving a platform to those dangerous sayings, even without meaning it.”

Prof. Port adds: “The IHRA Definition has become a yard stick, a declaration of values: Those who join its adoption are committed to countering of antisemitism, and of other parallel evils. It’s high time that the major social networks, Facebook first and foremost, use the IHRA definition as a criteria to identify antisemitic expressions, and uproot them immediately, thus exercising their responsibility to help create a world better than the one we are living in.”

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