Why Biodiversity Matters



Evolution has solved a number of challenges humans face, for instance, flight. (Credit: Museum of Science)

— by Julia Darcey

Harvard undergraduates who take Noel Michele Holbrook‘s course on biodiversity often do not end up becoming scientists. The future lawyers and businesspeople listen thoughtfully to her lectures on preserving the variety of Earth’s species, but lacking the passion of a biologist, there is one critical point that they have difficulty understanding. One student finally approached  Professor Holbrook about it. The student explained that she understood that species were going extinct, and that habitats were disappearing, but she still had one fundamental question: “Why does this matter?”

Biologists like Holbrook now have a solid and penetrating argument that preserving biodiversity matters because of its benefits for human health. In a new book, world-renowned scientist Eric Chivian compiles hundreds of studies on how evolution has allowed snails, bears, frogs and trees to solve major medical problems facing humans. He presented the book, titled Sustaining Life: How Human Health Depends on Biodiversity during a public conversation with Holbrook last night at the Boston Museum of Science.

Despite the clear benefits of biodiversity, species are disappearing at an unprecedented rate due to a combination of pollution, development and climate change. Extinction can have a big impact on humanity, Chivian said, because the keys to solving many human health problems already exist in the natural world-we just have to figure out how to use them. 

One example is the medical possibilities in 40,000 distinct toxins made by the 700 species of aquatic cone snails. The shelled slugs bombard their prey with sharp, poison-coated harpoons, the most potent of which hijack the victim’s nervous system. The study of cone snail toxins has already produced the painkiller Prialt, which is 100 times more effective than morphine and does not lead to tolerance.

The trick to preventing disease associated with obesity may also exist in the belly fat of the polar bear.  The polar bear, Chivian said, becomes massively obese before entering its den to sleep for the winter, and yet never develops Type II Diabetes or other obesity diseases.  “If we lose the polar bear,” said Chivian, “we will perhaps lose the secret to a disease that kills 1.5 million people a year.”

A drug for peptic ulcer disease, which affects 25 million Americans, may have once dwelt in the rainforests of Australia, inside the stomachs of gastric-brooding frogs. Females of these species ate their eggs, which would slowly incubate inside the mother’s stomach. The eggs survived by secreting chemicals that stopped the production of digestive enzymes.  However, all research on these frogs came to halt in the 80s, when the only two species of gastric-brooding frog went extinct. 

“Those compounds-which may have evolved over millions of years-are gone forever,” Chivian said.  To him, this is an idea that everyone can understand. Numbers of species lost have not been effective in communicating the urgency of biodiversity loss, partly because it happens far from day to day life, often in rainforests or at the microscopic level.  When educating the public about biodiversity, Chivian said, “the most basic fundamental focus should be on what the impacts on us would be.” 

“We hope that the book will make the connection that humans are not separate from biodiversity,” he said. Written in plain language, it is designed to be used by scientists, the lay public, and even as a textbook. This is the first text that explains in great detail why biodiversity matters, and Professor Holbrook, for one, now includes it on her syllabus. 

Posted by Joseph, under lecture notes  |  Date: October 5, 2008
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The Largest Canyon in the World


Michelle Ridgeway

Michelle Ridgway prepares for her canyon expedition. (Credit: Michelle Ridgway’s Blog)

— by Jennifer Berglund

West of Alaska is buried one of Earth’s most glorious and unexplored frontiers – the Zhemchug Canyon. The giant cavity, over a mile and a half deep, could consume the Grand Canyon with room to spare. When currents flow into the canyon, they slam against its walls before being thrust upwards towards the ocean’s surface. Within these upwellings, hordes of nutrients amass, feeding some of the largest concentrations of phytoplankton on Earth, which in turn nourishes a thriving cornucopia of life.

Into these dark depths, Michelle Ridgway made her descent.  Ridgway is a marine ecologist from Juneau, Alaska, and one of the last true explorers to plunge into a great unknown. As part of a public lecture series at the New England Aquarium, she shared her experiences in this final frontier earlier this week. Her story begins when she first sat in a tiny, eight-foot long research submarine resembling a backward forklift with pontoons. 

One year ago, Ridgway was on a mission to explore the deepest depths of the Zhemchug canyon and to document all traces of life that she could find. Out of a 200-person crew on the Greenpeace ship Esperanza, she was one of only five pilots allowed to operate the tiny sub. This status gave her the privilege to personally explore the canyon’s depths. 

As Ridgway descended, she took her first glimpse of the canyon wall.  Spots of bright oranges, blues and purples filled her view. Although the water was just a few degrees above freezing, it was indeed coral, a staple of tropical reefs. With her sub’s robotic arm, she reached out and grabbed the end of a 9-foot-tall piece. Much of the coral Ridgway found in the canyon had yet to be described.

Nearby, the mouthparts of tubeworms lined the rock walls, resembling the mountainsides of tropical rainforests speckled with ferns.  Between the coral and tubeworms hid an orange speck – a tiny prickly crab.  It was the younger version of a giant King Crab, one of the most sought after crab species in the world. Only a few millimeters long as a youth, it can grow to be nearly five feet in diameter as an adult. 

Ridgway’s sub was soon a fifth of the way down Zhemchug canyon and suddenly incapable of handling the enormous water pressure. She began her retreat, stopping for a moment at the top of the canyon.  The seafloor below resembled a desert, sandy debris gathered in waves and what appeared to be the coral reef’s rejects moved sporadically on the floor around her.  A large greenish-brown flatfish stared with two eyes that seem to have bumped into each other on one side of its head.

As Ridgway ended her dive, she quickly gathered a few more samples. She found a giant brown ball resembling a rock, which, when later examined, turned out to be compacted dirt. It was determined to contain traces of various species of ice algae, many of which scientists thought to have been extinct for 15,000 years. 

Ridgway returned to her research vessel full of stories, specimens, and enthusiasm for her next big dive. It was only 1of 25 in this particular mission – the first of many fruitful expeditions to come.  

Upcoming Aquarium events include: “Whales: Candles, Cheeses and Pigs in Disguise” on Oct. 5, “Tuna: A Love Story” on Oct. 14, and “Journey with a National Geographic Photographer” on Nov. 10. 

Posted by Joseph, under lecture notes  |  Date: October 3, 2008
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September 2008 Science Rap-Up


LHCA cross-section image showing debris (or “splash”) of particles entering the detector when the LHC beam was steered into the collimator (tungsten block) at around 9:50am, September 10. (Credit: CMS Collaboration ) 

— by Lauren Rugani and Joseph Caputo

September began a season of change.
Schools reopened, summer waned.
And as the Nation prepares to vote,
there’s still some science worthy of note.

Although some thought the end was near,
the Collider started and we’re still here.
We haven’t discovered the Higgs Boson yet,
due to a meltdown, it was reset.

After months of searching, a Lander found,
snow on Mars, and ice on the ground.
Up above Earth, off the spaceship Shenzhou,
China took its first steps in space, oh what a view.

As baby boomers got hooked on cocaine,
adolescents take pills, but not for the pain.
Other addictions took hold as well,
a game called Spore has geeks under its spell.

Carbon dioxide is filling the air,
and doctors don’t want to do primary care.
But none of these stories are far from over,
check back for updates in the month of October.

Posted by Joseph, under science rap-up  |  Date: September 30, 2008

Sustaining Life: Beginning the Conversation with Dr. Holbrook


Polar Bears

Polar bears are one of many creatures in danger of extinction that have contributed to medical reearch. (Credit: Museum of Science)

Museum of Science, Boston/Cahners Theater
Friday, October 3, at 7:00 p.m.

— by Joseph Caputo

In 1992, the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School began a massive, international effort under the direction of Nobel Peace Prize-winning scientist and author Eric Chivian to catalog “what was known about how other species contribute to human health.” The result is “Sustaining Life: How Human Health Depends on Biodiversity,” a 568-page tomb of scientific research recounting the numerous medical advances acquired through our study of other species. This Friday at the Museum of Science, Chivian will have a public discussion about biodiversity and health with world-renowned research scientist Edward O. Wilson. Moderating the event will be Noel Michele “Missy” Holbrook, the Charles Bullard Professor of Forestry and Professor of Biology at Harvard University, who shared some of her thoughts on the book with Science Metropolis. 


Dr. HolbrookA: As moderator I will try to put voice to questions that the audience will have. One of the reasons I have adopted the book for my course is that it has so many examples of how the pursuit of knowledge can change the way we act in the world.  I think that’s what both Drs. Wilson and Chivian have come to symbolize in their lifes’ work – helping people see these connections and then take the next steps. I’m going to try to provoke them to really elaborate on those themes in their own experiences with biological diversity and value.


A: I think both Drs. Wilson and Chivianc do a large amount of going beyond the ivory tower, whether going to world leaders and decision makers at every level. Both have been very active in the last year reaching out to the religious right with a shared interest in biological diversity. Both are very involved in helping to recognize we have a common reason for preserving biodiversity.


A: He carries a great deal of respect in part becase he’s able to effectively communicate the value of biological diversity in ways that matter. We invite him to give a guest lecture to my intro course each year in part because he resonates with students. I think it’s partly that he’s a strong voice from within the medical community that he really stands out and does a great service for the general public.


A: They have not read it yet, so it is very hard fro me to comment on that. It is a handsome and affordable book with lovely illustrations and a very fine layout. The goal was to get it into the hands of a wide audience, including students. I think knowledge is empowering and I think this is a good question: What is the value of biological diversity? I like the title because we depend on the health of our planet, food system, and ourselves – all of these things are intertwined. 


A: There are quite a few examples.  Plants are the great biochemists of our planet. The cure for malaria came from a tree. Aspirin was originally isolated from the bark of a willow tree. A lot of cancer drugs also come from plants. 


A: We’re at a very serious juncture at the history of Earth for a potential large amount of biological diversity to go extinct. Quite a serious topic, so I hope people come away thinking there is hope, they can work in partnership with academics, and that it’s a shared endeavour that matters to them.

How to Get TicketsTickets for this program may be purchased by phone at 617/723-2500 or online at www.mos.org/adults. Seating is limited. Advance purchase is strongly recommended.

Posted by Joseph, under environment  |  Date: September 29, 2008

New Exhibit: “The Language of Color”


The Language of Color: Adam Blanchette, www.hmnh.harvard.edu

A new exhibit on “The Language of Color” will run through September 2009 at the Harvard Museum of Natural History. (Credit: Adam Blanchette, www.hmnh.harvard.edu)

— by Joseph Caputo and Nuño Dominguez

A new exhibit at the Harvard Museum of Natural History in Cambridge features “The Language of Color.” It answers three big questions: How is color used? How is it perceived? And how is color made?

Posted by Joseph, under video  |  Date: September 26, 2008

Video Game Review: “Spore”


Spore Screenshot
— by Eric Schwartz

The meteor hurtled through space, warming and breaking apart as it approached the yellow star.  One small piece, compelled by gravity, landed in the warm, shallow waters of a planet orbiting the star.  The tiny bacterium, frozen into a cryogenic stasis during the long journey through the void, woke up and found itself in an environment well-suited to growth, after some changes…

Spore is a video game that chronicles the journey of life from a single-celled organism, to a land dweller, and on to various stages of intelligent civilization.  This summary does not do justice to what it is, however, the most complex and complete simulation game ever made.  After swimming about in the ocean as an omnivore and growing steadily, I made my way onto the land looking something like this:

Failed Spore Creature

This was ill-suited for life on land so I decided to change things up a bit, ending up more like this:

Young Brotox

As this creature, rather randomly called a “Brotox,” for no reason other than I liked the sound, I wandered about the continent, running into other creatures I either befriended with my persuasive songs and dances, or hunted to extinction.  By doing so, and by finding convenient bone piles scattered about, I was able to discover new kinds of body parts and evolve into a much more fearsome creature, at least to the planet’s other inhabitants.  To my own eyes, I looked a bit silly, but evolution does sometimes lead down unlikely paths.  By the time I reached sentience, I looked like this:

Brotox Adult

My species began building huts, going to war with other tribes and forming alliances, very quickly building a technological civilization focused on trade.  Through judicious alliances and the occasional war, the Brotox empire set for space to terraform planets, making friends (and enemies) with other space-faring empires.  

Now, Science Metropolis is a web site for science and science-related material, which begs the question of why a brief review of a video game, no matter how fun and (very) addictive it is?  Well, a game like Spore does do good for the cause of science education, with one unfortunate side effect.  Most importanty, Spore makes evolutionary biology understandable and interesting to the player. When a creature gains an “adaptaption,” it makes sense why it is beneficial.  The only flaw is that it also makes evolution appear to be a simple progression.  Evolutionary reality is intrincically subtle and lacks any sort of intelligent intervention, which is after all, exactly what a player is. 

Still, Spore is a lot of fun, and that is what matters in a video game.  Just take any “science” in it with a grain of salt.  It bodes well for the future of this type of game as makes an effort to go according to actual biology.  Who knows how the genre will continue to evolve….

For up-to-date information on Spore, visit Space Oddity’s Spore Blog.

Posted by Joseph, under reviews  |  Date: September 25, 2008

A “Superdove” Takes Flight



The history of the street pigeon is revealed in  Courtney Humphries new book Superdove. (Credit: Vizero.com)

— Story by Roxanne Palmer

Look!  Up in the sky!  It’s a bird!  It’s a plane!  No- actually, it is a bird. 

Street pigeons- also known as Columbia livia, rock doves, or, to quote Woody Allen, “flying rats”- are a common sight on the streets of Boston.   Most city-dwellers ignore them, many revile them, and a few feed them.  In the portrait of the urban landscape, they are mere background objects, neither endangered nor exotic enough to inspire our interest, let alone lavish PBS documentaries.  Pigeons, it seems, just don’t seem natural.

Courtney Humphries, a graduate of the science writing program at MIT, brings these birds into the foreground in her book, Superdove: How the Pigeon Took Manhattan… and the World.  The author recently gave a talk at the Harvard Natural History Museum, where she gave a brief overview of the historical relationship between people and pigeons.  Though they’ve gotten a bad rap as disease-carriers (untrue) and annoying pests (somewhat true), the pigeon is an amazing evolutionary success story.

Humphries pointed out that the first chapter of The Origin of Species focuses on the variation observed in domestic pigeons.  Darwin himself owned specimens from several breeds of fancy pigeon, from the peacock-like Fantail to the Jacobin, which sports a large, feathery frill around its head.  By breeding his pets and extensively questioning pigeon enthusiasts (of which there were many in Victorian England), he was able to fully flesh out his ideas on descent from a common ancestor.  While even the most casual of science hobbyists has heard of Darwin’s finches, it is really Darwin’s pigeons that we should thank for the theory of evolution.

From its beginnings, the history of the pigeon was heavily influenced by mankind.  After being domesticated in ancient Egypt, some of the birds naturally escaped their owners.  However, unlike other feral animals, they never actually left.  Buildings erected by men provided a habitat as equally suited to them as the rocky cliffs where their wild cousins nested.  Food was plentiful and there were few natural predators.  Thanks to the efforts of people, feral pigeons flourished in the cities.

“These birds are very successful because of us, and what we’ve done… we created them,” Humphries said.

While pigeons are not the subject of many scientific studies, people still find them to be useful creatures.  Pigeon are still a food source across the world, especially in Asia.  Homing pigeons have carried messages as recently as World War I.  Superdove even relates the account of how the behaviorist B.F. Skinner developed a prototype for a pigeon-guided missile.

During the question and answer session, an audience member asked if Humphries had ever thought of eating the subject of her research.  She laughed, and confirmed that she had ordered pigeon at a French restaurant, where it is euphemistically listed on the menu as “squab”.   She called it “a richly flavored bird- not fatty like duck, and not bland like chicken.”

Yes, she recommends the pigeon- in more ways than one.

(For the more adventurous readers of Science Metropolis, Clio Restaurant in Back Bay offers pigeon accompanied by black truffles, spaghetti squash, pistachio croquant and baby leeks, for a cool $38.)

Posted by Joseph, under lecture notes  |  Date: September 23, 2008

Science At Large: College Night at the Museum of Science


Playing with electricity!

— Column and Photos by Rachel Blumenthal.

Growing up in Massachusetts, I went to the Museum of Science on countless school trips and family outings.  Once, I even went for an extra-special sleepover party; an amazing experience, except that my group (boys and girls around fifth grade) was assigned to sleep in the “How Your Life Began” exhibit.  If you can imagine the life-changing experience of having a giant pillow fight with your elementary school classmates while surrounded by videos of women giving birth and models of the male and female reproductive systems, then you can get an idea of the unique experiences the museum has to offer.

Last Monday night, the Museum of Science hosted their 12th annual College Night.  All college students received free admission as well as two free tickets to special exhibits, such as IMAX shows, laser light shows, and even Duck Tours.  I chose tickets to the Butterfly Garden and the Led Zeppelin laser light show.

Many beautiful butterflies and moths inhabit the Butterfly Garden.I stopped by the Butterfly Garden first and spent some time observing and photographing the many colorful species of butterflies and moths inhabiting the humid, plant-filled space.  Groups of students huddled together, excitedly pointing out butterflies hidden among the plants.  One girl shrieked and covered her head as a low-flying butterfly came a bit too close for comfort.  Christina Lau, a Boston University sophomore majoring in English, thought that it was “so pretty and relaxing.”  Her classmate Lisa Merolla, a junior journalism major, said that it was smaller than she had pictured, but “it was still cool.”  The garden is a must-see if you visit the museum.  It’s a shame that it costs an extra $4.50 on top of the admission price, but it’s really worth it.  Be sure to check yourself in the mirror for stowaway butterflies before you exit the room!

Alary Price and Walker Jenkins, freshmen from Northeastern, check out the crazy mirror.Next, I wandered around the exhibit halls.  From dinosaurs to electricity to optical illusions, you can find a little bit of everything at the museum.  As the night went on, increasing numbers of students crowded the halls and enthusiastically played with the hands-on exhibits.  There was no sense of embarrassment or “I can’t believe I’m at this lame event” anywhere.  Everyone in sight was laughing and smiling.  One group of girls yelled out “I love science!” in unison while riding the escalator.  “This is, like, the best night ever!” exclaimed another girl who was waiting in line for a laser show.

Chelsea, an educator at the museum, teaches a curious audience about the Brazilian Rainbow Boa.After looking at some exhibits, I stopped by a live animal presentation where a museum educator, Chelsea, was showing off a beautiful Brazilian Rainbow Boa.  The audience listened to the presentation attentively and without a hint of rudeness.  I wonder if they all listen to their professors as closely.

On my way to the Charles Hayden Planetarium for the laser show, I walked through the lobby, where KISS108 DJs were providing music, free candy, and prizes.  I won a gym bag just for finding a coin from 1992.  When I reached the Students mill about in the lobby and listen to music provided by KISS108.planetarium, the line was already beginning to snake through the neighboring exhibit.  Although not everyone decided to stay through the entire laser show, which featured a lively 11-song Led Zeppelin set, most agreed that it was “trippy” and “awesome.”  Other laser shows featuring different music were also available.

Next, I took a quick ice cream break, enjoying some mint chocolate Dippin’ Dots in the atrium by the musical stairs.  If Students participate in the Rock Band tournament.you have a headache, I would not recommend hanging out in this part of the museum.  A chime sounds with every step that someone takes on this staircase.  You can expect quite the cacophonic symphony on a busy day.

Other fun events of the night included a Rock Band Xbox tournament, bug and shark shows in the 3D cinema, and three different IMAX films in the Mugar Omni Theater.  Walker Jenkins, a freshman at Northeastern, viewed the Wild Ocean IMAX film, which he thought was “really cool.”  Christina Lau and Lisa Merolla also watched it.  “It was really intense, especially seeing it on a gigantic dome screen,” said Lau.

Everyone seemed to have a great time, and most said that they’d return in the future, but it’s unfortunate that the regular admission price is $19, pretty steep Christina Lau, a BU sophomore majoring in English, and Lisa Merolla, a BU junior majoring in journalism, learn about the motion of pendulums while reliving their childhoods on a swingset.for the average college student’s budget.  But a free night of fun is irresistible, and the large crowds of happy students were evidence that the 12th annual College Night was a big hit.  “It’s fun to act like a kid again with your friends, and to be able to do it for free is even better,” explained Merolla.

From science majors to English majors to those who have yet to decide, the Museum of Science has something to offer everyone.  Because everyone’s a science dork at heart.

Other Boston museums also host annual free College Nights.  This fall, the Museum of Fine Arts is hosting a College Night on September 25, and the New England Aquarium is hosting a College Night on October 8.

Posted by Joseph, under Science At Large  |  Date: September 20, 2008

Introducing Aeroecology: Scientists Study Life in Flight


Thermal Infrared image of flying Brazilian free tailed bats in Texas, shown in false color. Key to colors:  yellow (warmest), red (warm), green (cool), blue (coolest).

Thermal Infrared image of flying Brazilian free-tailed bats in Texas. Key to false colors: yellow (warmest), red (warm), green (cool), blue (coolest). (Credit: Thomas H. Kunz and Margrit Betke/Boston University)

by Julia Darcey

Finding out if wind turbines kill bats requires more than a body count. To answer this seemingly simple question, scientists need to find out how bats migrate, why they migrate, how they fly, and what air currents they follow. The complexity and inaccessibility of aerial lifestyles often means that flying creatures, like bats, are poorly understood.

That is why Thomas Kunz, Director of the Center for Ecology and Conservation Biology at Boston University, proposed a new discipline called aeroecology at the “Integrative and Comparative Biology Symposium” in August. Aeroecology is the study of the interactions of organisms in and with the air. It’s difficult to think of the air as a habitat. But to a flying animal, the air is a landscape as complex as the ground below, filled with turbulence, currents, predators, prey, and even diseases. The study of aeroecology encompasses both the structure of the air and the organisms that migrate and feed within it. Or, as Kunz puts it: “Everything above the ground is fair game.”

Aeroecology is based at Boston University, but it draws on research from scientists all over the country, working in fields as disparate as atmospheric science, engineering, and computer science. Guided by aeroecology’s cross-disciplinary approach, biologists used to working from the ground are beginning to use common devices to observe animals in flight. For example, Doppler weather-surveillance radar can distinguish birds and bats from each other based on their flight speed. Other researchers are using tracking radar to identify and record movements of migratory animals. Thermal imaging cameras-which can capture the temperature profiles of warm-bodied animals that would otherwise be invisible at night-allow researchers to census populations of the nocturnal Brazilian free-tailed bat.

When using large-scale detection instruments, such as Doppler radar, it is impossible to identify species. One way to do this, Kunz says, is to learn exactly what the wing beats of each species look like. Kunz and his colleagues plan to learn this by sending different species of bats and birds into the sky in a small container attached to a weather balloon. When it reaches the target altitude, the container will open and the animal will fly out. This will allow Kunz to record the wing beat patterns of each species in its natural aerial environment. Kunz says that such research will help identify birds and bats in the air, especially at night.

Climate change and human expansion make understanding the fauna of the aerosphere more important than ever before. Thousands of bats and birds die each year from wind turbines, and these aren’t the only hazard that winged animals face. “The air space has been greatly altered by anthropogenic development-turbines, aircraft, lighted cities, skyscrapers,” Kunz says. “I am against further development before we know the potential consequences in each situation.” The unified approach that aeroecology advocates, Kunz says, will be vital to preserving the unfamiliar and dynamic world that exists above us.

Posted by Joseph, under environment  |  Date: September 19, 2008

New Scientist Block Party


New Scientist Block Party

The judges prepare to declare the science trivia competition winners. (Credit: Joseph Caputo)

by Joseph Caputo

UK-based science magazine New Scientist stepped off the newsstands this afternoon and came to Cambridge’s Technology Square for a party. In a grassy courtyard surrounded by leading research institutions, locals sampled free drinks and food before heading over to a nearby Wii competition.

Although the Block Party was for advertising purposes only, (I am now the proud owner of Pfizer chapstick), New Scientist couldn’t help infusing some geekiness into their event. Dozens entered a science trivia contest to win prizes like a copy of “Why Don’t Penguin’s Feet Freeze,” a 1.5 G flash drive or an iPod shuffle. Questions on the closest platypus relative, deep-sea vents, and nuclear reactors kept the competition fierce.  (It is no surprise, however, that Team ScienceMetropolis.com won the science in Massachusetts round.)

Those who haven’t heard of New Scientist should definitely pick up an issue. It is a weekly publication that covers the latest world news in science, space, technology and the environemnt. Their feature stories are often evocative and timely. Some of the latest include where to find black holes, the psychology of leadership and racing rockets. And unlike the more stuffy science publications, they are a strong supporter of fun.

Posted by Joseph, under business  |  Date: September 18, 2008
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