Monday, 31 December 2012
Rita Levi-Montalcini, a biologist who conducted underground research in defiance of Fascist persecution and went on to win a Nobel Prize for helping unlock the mysteries of the cell, died at her home in Rome. She was 103 and had worked well into her final years. Rome Mayor Gianni Alemanno, announcing her death in a statement, called it a great loss "for all of humanity." He praised her as someone who represented "civic conscience, culture and the spirit of research of our time."
Italy's so-called "Lady of the Cells," and one of her country's leading scientists who shared the Nobel medicine prize in 1986 with American biochemist Stanley Cohen for their groundbreaking research carried out in US. Her research increased the understanding of many conditions, including tumors, developmental malformations, and senile dementia. A petite woman with upswept white hair, she kept an intensive work schedule well into old age. "At 100, I have a mind that is superior — thanks to experience — than when I was 20," she said in 2009. "A beacon of life is extinguished" with her death, said a niece, Piera Levi-Montalcini, who is a city councilwoman in Turin.
Levi-Montalcini was born April 22, 1909 in the northern city of Turin. At the age of 20, she overcame her father's objections that women should not study, and obtained a degree in medicine and surgery from Turin University in 1936. She studied under top anatomist Giuseppe Levi, whom she often credited for her own success. After graduating, Levi-Montalcini began working as a research assistant in neurobiology but lost her job in 1938. Her family decided to stay in Italy and, as World War II neared, Levi-Montalcini created a makeshift lab in her bedroom where she began studying the development of chicken embryos, which would later lead to her major discovery of mechanisms that regulate growth of cells and organs.
With eggs becoming a rarity due to the war, the young scientist biked around the countryside to buy them from farmers. She was soon joined in her secret research by Levi, her university mentor, who was also Jewish and who became her assistant. "She worked in primitive conditions," Italian astrophysicist Margherita Hack said in a tribute to her fellow scientist. "She is really someone to be admired."
Italy's premier, Mario Monti, paid tribute to Levi-Montalcini's "charismatic and tenacious" character and for her lifelong battle to "defend the battles in which she believed." Only a few months ago, she helped sponsor an appeal to the government for more attention of fund-strapped young scientists in Italy. Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi praised Levi-Montalcini's civil and moral efforts, saying she was an "inspiring" example for Italy and the world
An Italian scientist, who worked for some 40 years with Levi-Montalcini, including in the United States, said the work the Nobel laureate did on nerve growth factor was continuing. The protein assists portions of the central nervous system that have been damaged by disease or injury. "Over the years, this field of investigation has become ever more important in the world of neuroscience," Pietro Calissano was quoted by ANSA as saying. Calissano began studying under Levi-Montalcini in 1965 and recalled her ability to relate to students on a very human level, with none of the elite airs that often characterize Italian professors.
"I remember we were in a closet with cell cultures when she offered me a fellowship," Calissano said. He added that research building on Levi-Montalcini's pioneering achievements continues. "We are working on a possible application in the treatment of Alzheimer's," he added.
The 1943 German invasion of Italy forced the Levi-Montalcini family to flee to Florence and live underground. In 1947 Levi-Montalcini was invited to the United States, where she remained for more than 20 years, which she called "the happiest and most productive" of her life. She held dual Italian-US citizenship.
During her research at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, she discovered nerve growth factor, the first substance known to regulate the growth of cells. She showed that when tumors from mice were transplanted to chicken embryos they induced rapid growth of the embryonic nervous system. She concluded that the tumor released a nerve growth-promoting factor that affected certain types of cells.
The research increased the understanding of many conditions, including tumors, developmental malformations and senile dementia. It also led to the discovery by Stanley Cohen of another substance, epidermal growth factor, which stimulates the proliferation of epithelial cells. The two shared the Nobel Prize for medicine in 1986.
Levi-Montalcini returned to Italy to become the director of the laboratory of cell biology of the National Council of Scientific Research in Rome in 1969. After retiring in the late 1970s, she continued to work as a guest professor and wrote several books. She created the Levi-Montalcini Foundation to grant scholarships and promote educational programs worldwide, particularly for women in Africa.
In 2001 Levi-Montalcini was made a senator for life, one of the country's highest honors. She then became active in Parliament, especially between 2006 and 2008, when she and other life senators would cast their votes to back the thin majority of center-left Premier Romano Prodi. Levi-Montalcini had no children and never married, fearing such ties would undercut her independence.
"I never had any hesitation or regrets in this sense," she said in a 2006 interview. "My life has been enriched by excellent human relations, work and interests. I have never felt lonely." Italian mathematician Piergiorgio Odifreddi said he was always struck by the contrast of this "petite, frail woman and the power of her mind." He recalled comments that Levi-Montalcini made when she turned 100. She mentioned that she would sleep no more than two or three hours a night because "I have no time to lose,".
A group of astronomers recently released the so-called universe’s baby picture. The said image was accomplished after nine years of data gathering made by the science team of Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP).
According to a reports, all-sky image of the new ‘baby picture’ of the universe maps the hot temperature of the radiation at a time when the universe was only 375,000 years old, a small fraction of its current age of around 13.77 billion years.
The universe’s latest ‘baby picture’ shows a plus-or-minus 200 microKelvin range of temperature with changes in the so-called cosmic microwave background radiation. The appearance is in the different colors, which allowed the astronomers to predict what most likely have happened earlier.
“We are just a speck in the vastness of the universe, so it is amazing that we have the ability to answer fundamental questions about the vast universe around us, but the WMAP team has done just that,” Charles Bennett, a Johns Hopkins University astrophysicist said.
“It was possible because we can detect and study the ancient light, the oldest light in the universe. The universe encoded its autobiography in the microwave patterns we observe across the whole sky. When we decoded it, the universe revealed its history and contents.” Bennett added.
The WMAP spacecraft was launched on June 30, 2001 from Florida and was developed in a joint partnership between Princeton University and the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. The addition of Wilkinson was made in 2003, in honor of cosmologist David Todd Wilkinson, who was once a member of the mission’s science team and passed away in 2002.
Apparently, among the other revelations revealed from the data from WMAP reportedly include a much more nearly accurate estimate of how old now is the universe, and the confirmation that around 95 percent of the universe is composed of “stuff” dubbed as dark matter and dark energy.