When we talk to our babies, we subconsciously change the way we speak, using a higher pitch and shorter sentences. New research by postdoctoral researcher Elise Piazza also shows CHANGES IN MOTHERS’ TIMBRE, a musical quality that can define a voice as raspy, silky, or nasal even when using the same pitch. In research Piazza and other researchers published in October in Current Biology, a computer algorithm found that all mothers in the study made the same timbre shift, with results consistent across nine languages, including English, Mandarin, and Polish. The research could help improve voice recognition, allowing it to determine subtle shifts when we address other audiences, including students or romantic partners.

While up to 80 percent of adults have the HERPES SIMPLEX VIRUS (HSV), most never show symptoms, since the virus is latent — or “sleeping” — inside their cells. Sometimes, however, the virus “wakes up,” causing an outbreak of symptoms such as cold sores. Using a new technique, associate research scholar Orkide Ozge Koyuncu discovered that a key component of outbreaks are viral tegument proteins, which line the wall of the virus core and “supercharge” cells’ response to stress, causing a flare-up. Along with molecular biology professor Lynn Enquist, she published her findings in October in PLoS Pathogens. By understanding this process, scientists may be able to help control HSV outbreaks. 

Peter Arkle

THE HUMAN GENOME is like an instruction manual for the body. Despite decoding all of its 22,000 genes 15 years ago, however, scientists have been unable to fully translate those instructions in order to understand which genes grow specific tissues — and which might cause disease. A team led in part by computer science professor Barbara Engelhardt is filling those gaps. By taking tissue samples from 449 donors and conducting trillions of statistical tests on every mutation in the genome, they have been able to link gene expression to both healthy and diseased tissues. Their work, published in Nature in October, could help to develop better genetic treatments. 

Senior research engineer Eric Larson has created a technique for manufacturing a new EMISSION-FREE AUTOMOBILE FUEL that could also pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. The technique takes woody biomass, such as sawdust and tree branches that would otherwise be wasted, and transforms it into oil by injecting it with hydrogen and other catalysts. Since the carbon in the wood originally came from photosynthesis, burning the oil would simply return the same carbon to the atmosphere — moreover, sequestering carbon during production could make the fuel carbon-negative. In a paper published in Sustainable Energy & Fuels, Larson argues the technique could yield a viable alternative to fossil fuels if it could be produced cheaply at scale.