ÖK researchers have successfully completed interdisciplinary research as part of the ”In the Light of Evolution: Principles and Solutions” project

Evolution is a central organizing principle of biology, which is why in order to understand any large-scale process and its influence on the living world, it is necessary to identify its evolutionary cause. Moreover, evolutionary dynamics – such nature-based, bio-inspired methods – have positive applications in solving a wide range of ecological, economic, societal and compounded technical problems, as these are all mutually dependent, complex systems with a range of actors and subject to change, just like the living world.

With the help of a mesocosm system designed for experimental examinations of aquatic life, which was constructed using project financing and is the only one of its kind in Eastern Europe, researchers at the Balaton Limnological Institute of the ELKH Centre for Ecological Research have examined the effect of climate change on aquatic life in Lake Balaton, with a particular focus on algae growth, which caused some severe problems at the end of last year’s holiday season. These investigations can help us to understand deeper explanations for connections between warm weather and a sudden increase in the number of algae.

As part of the project, the researchers examined the effect of climate change on the possible scenarios for the appearance of new diseases that entail a severe risk to the health of the general public, as well as evolutionary options for prevention, early warning and control.

Additionally, mathematical models and robot experiments were used to study possible scenarios for the development of human speech and the tendency for cooperation in prehistoric man, while the study also saw the introduction of evolutionary robotics as an experimental technique in Hungary.

Through their computer-based research, researchers have also come closer to understanding how complex chemical systems before the advent of terrestrial life could have reached the complexity that led to the creation of the very first living organisms.

You can find further information about the project at the following link.

Researchers from KRTK and Corvinus University publish an article on the effects of the reorganization of global value chains

The multinational companies that drive and organize global value chains regularly reorganize production. In light of decisions made in this area, some production processes may be kept in-house, others will be relocated to the company’s own foreign subsidiaries or independent suppliers in the value chain, or the multinational company may take back previously outsourced activities from these subsidiaries or suppliers. A researcher from the ELKH KRTK Institute of World Economics has contributed to an article, published in the Competitiveness Review journal that presents the complex effects of this reorganization process. The results of the study are particularly significant for the Hungarian economy, given that Hungary is one of the OECD economies that is most integrated in global value chains.

As a result of increasing competitive pressure, technological advances and the liberalization of international trade and capital flows, an increasing number of companies are organizing their production activities on an international scale, setting up production facilities in and employing suppliers from several different countries. The complex production structures created by this process are known as international – global or regional – value chains. For the creation of individual products, the process begins with research and development activity, before proceeding to design, the manufacturing of components, assembly, marketing, distribution and then finally the consignment of the product to the consumer.

International value chain processes are organized and monitored by the multinational company that owns the products. Hungary – through, for example, the domestic car industry, its production capacity in electronics and the larger service centers – plays an intensive role in these international value chains, primarily in terms of production processes. The researchers prepared detailed case studies in relation to two Hungarian subsidiaries and investigated them with the objective of uncovering the motivations behind the reorganization of value chains, as well as the effect of this reorganization on the operation of companies involved in the given value chain. This research is particularly valuable, given that while the theoretical literature in this field is relatively extensive, these topics have rarely been subjected to practical analysis.

Based on a case study of the two companies, the researchers established that the reorganization of global value chains is not a rare or unique event. In the face of strong competitive pressure, active leading multinational companies are constantly identifying high value-added processes, then after detachment from low value-added processes, attempting to, if possible, relocate these (high value-added) processes to the center of the multinational company or one of its subsidiaries, bearing in mind the advantages of the concentration of their activity. This results in what is essentially a continuous process of reconfiguration and reorganization in the global value chain.

Arpadiana – A book series about the Árpád era in Hungary

The Kingdom of Hungary in the Árpád era has not yet taken the place it deserves in our historical memory. Yet a deeper knowledge of this bright period in Hungarian history could become an important element of a modern European and Hungarian identity. The Hungarian government wished to facilitate this process by adopting the regulation 1832/2013. (XI. 15.) on the Árpád Dynasty Program and related development sub-programs (2013–2038). An Operational Board was set up to elaborate the project, led by Pál Fodor, Director General of the Research Centre for the Humanities. The Board, with the involvement of the leading researchers of this period, developed the Árpád Dynasty Program within a few months, the implementation of which began in 2018.

The program focuses on the preservation, presentation and development of the national memorial site in Székesfehérvár. However, it also provides intense support for historical, philological, archaeological, archaeogenetic and other research that will enable a deeper knowledge and presentation of the Árpáds – and the Árpád era in a broader sense. To communicate the results to an international audience, a new English-language series entitled Arpadiana was launched last year by the Research Centre for the Humanities (editors:  Pál Fodor and Attila Zsoldos). This article presents the first four volumes published so far.

Markets and Staples in the Medieval Hungarian Kingdom (Arpadiana 1.) 

This book discusses medieval markets and depots and places of commercial activity in the Kingdom of Hungary, and their many interactions, as well as how they developed and changed over time. Though the system went through many changes as new demands arose over the centuries, but at the same time it was characterized by a sense of permanence and an adherence to older conventions. In the early Kingdom of Hungary, only the king was able to hold markets, but clerical and secular landowners gradually acquired market rights over time. The only prerogative retained by the king was the power to grant a franchise for a market.

Kings may have created the institutional basis for trade, but markets followed their own course of development in the way they operated.

Bibliographic data: Weisz, Boglárka: Markets and Staples in the Medieval Hungarian Kingdom. (Arpadiana 1.) Budapest, 2020. Institute of History, Research Centre for the Humanities ISBN: 978-963-416-199-8. 258 pages.

Diviso Regni (Arpadiana 2.)

Hungarian historians have always been particularly fascinated by the throne feuds of their 11th- and 12th-century Árpád rulers. The original division of the Kingdom of Hungary, the disputes between King Solomon and his cousins Duke Géza and Duke Ladislaus, and the struggle between King Coloman the Learned and his brother Duke Álmos have left a deep impression on Hungary’s national memory, inspiring literary classics, modern screenplays and scholarly studies such as Divisio Regni, in which Dániel Bagi examines Hungary’s 11th- and 12th-century dynastic conflicts against the backdrop of their broader Central European context, including comparable conflicts in Poland, Bohemia and Moravia, and the Holy Roman Empire. The book’s Latin title (meaning “The Division of a Kingdom”) comes from a passage of scripture which was regularly cited in the Middle Ages, when this phrase conveyed two important shades of meaning. While literally referring to geographical divisions and the throne feuds associated with them, it could also connote general civil strife, dissension, and the state of discord created by rival claimants to the throne.

This volume is an attempt to analyze the dynastic conflicts of the 11th and 12th centuries from both these perspectives, providing detailed accounts of their historical backgrounds and immediate causes, comparative discussions of territorially distinct specific systems of administration, and critical assessments of the historically distinct notions of social relationships which framed the perceptions of the authors who recorded these throne feuds in the original sources.

Bibliographic data: Bagi, Dániel: Divisio Regni. The territorial divisions, power struggles, and dynastic historiography of the Árpáds of 11th- and early 12th-century Hungary, with comparative studies of the Piasts of Poland and the Přemyslids of Bohemia. (Arpadiana 2.) Budapest, 2020. BTK ISBN: 978-963-416-206-3. 408 pages.

Dalmatia and the Exercise of Royal Authority in the Árpád-Era Kingdom of Hungary (Arpadiana 3.)

Although Hungary and Croatia are bonded together by 800 years of common statehood, many questions about the two countries’ shared history are still unanswered.

The position of the Dalmatian towns in the medieval Kingdom of Hungary and their relationship with the kings are among these unexplored fields of the Hungarian-Croatian past. This volume focuses on the beginnings of their common statehood and analyzes the place of Dalmatian towns in the Kingdom of Hungary through the lens of the exercise of the Hungarian royal authority. The book guides the readers through several aspects of this relationship to show how the Hungarian royal court maintained its authority over the towns and who were the representatives of the kings of Hungary in Dalmatia. Judit Gál works at the Institute of History of the Research Centre for the Humanities and her main field of interest is the relationship between Hungary and the Balkans between the 11th and 15th centuries.

Bibliographic data: Gál, Judit: Dalmatia and the Exercise of Royal Authority in the Árpád-Era Kingdom of Hungary. (Arpadiana 3.) Budapest, 2020. BTK Történettudományi Intézet ISBN: 978-963-416-227-8. 228 pages.

The Árpáds and Their People (Arpadiana 4.) 

The aim of this book is to present the history of the Árpád era. However, the method applied here differs significantly from the traditional approach of following the chronological order of events. The period is presented not as a linear narration of events, but rather in the light of the society of the time. The introductory chapters are followed by chapters portraying a broad range of typical figures of the age, from the king down to the servants and the free peasants. All the knowledge of the full history of the Árpád period that can be expected to be included in a work of such a size has found its place in this social historical overview.

Attila Zsoldos is a full member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. He works at the Institute of History of the Research Centre for the Humanities (Budapest, Hungary). His main fields of interest are the social and political history and the institutions of 11th-14th century Hungary.

Bibliographic data: Zsoldos, Attila: The Árpáds and Their People. (Arpadiana 4.) Budapest, 2020. BTK Történettudományi Intézet ISBN: 978-963-416-226-1. 266 pages.

The Hungarian translation of this article is available here.

Summer droughts may increase the success of invasive horseweed in Hungarian sand grasslands

Researchers at the Institute of Ecology and Botany of the ELKH Centre for Ecological Research and Eötvös Loránd University studied changes in the growth, seed yield and mass of an invasive horseweed (Conyza canadensis) in a field experiment on precipitation manipulation in Kiskunság. The results of the research were published in the journal Oecologia.

Plant invasions, defined as a constant increase in the distribution area and population size of non-native plant species in habitats favorable to them, can cause serious problems both for nature conservation and for forestry, agriculture and health. Today’s rapid environmental changes such as climate change are expected to contribute to the spread of many invasive plant species. Although more and more studies are emerging on the effects of climate change on the success of invasive species and the resilience of habitats to invasive species, responses to change in precipitation are often difficult to predict. As a climate becomes wetter, it may favor the invasion of some non-native species, while other invasive species are spreading in the wake of droughts, when water shortages reduce or destroy the original, native vegetation. Understanding the effects of changes in precipitation on plant invasion is particularly important in dry and semi-arid habitats, where the amount and distribution of precipitation is a major determinant of organic matter production and the stability of plant communities. In Hungary, for example, open sand grasslands are considered such habitats, where Andrea Mojzes and her colleagues carried out their research work.

Horseweed (Conyza canadensis), a member of the family of herbs, is an annual species introduced from North America that has now become a cosmopolitan weed. It is widespread in Hungary, predominantly in agricultural crops and vineyards, though it can often be found on railway embankments and on the side of roads. In sandy areas, it can collect on abandoned fallows, for example, but it can also penetrate natural open sandy grasslands and multiply as a result of disturbance.

In a field experiment in Kiskunság, the researchers investigated the effect of repeated precipitation manipulations in the experimental plots (moderate drought, severe drought, watering) on the height and seed yield of horsefeed growing in the plots, and examined whether these differences could be related to changes in plant mass as a result of treatment. Mild drought was defined as a month-long and severe drought a two-month lack of rainfall in summer. Irrigation was carried out once a month, from May to August.

In the second year of application of the treatments (2016), the researchers measured the height of the marked horseweed individuals in the experimental plots and estimated their seed production. After stopping the treatments, the proportion of dead individual plants was determined, as well as the above-ground biomass of the horseweed in each experimental plot.

Habitat image, rosettes and flowering and fruiting stage of horseweed (Conyza canadensis) in the sand grassland near Fülöpháza. The tiny, pappiferous fruits of the plant are quickly spread by the wind. Photos by Andrea Mojzes.

Shoot height (a), number of seeds per plant (b) and above-ground biomass (c) in 2016, in a precipitation manipulation field experiment

Surprisingly, the researchers found that the horseweed showed enhanced growth in drought-treated plots compared to control and watered plots. This difference was particularly marked in plots exposed to moderate (one month) drought, where individual plants grew 2.5 times taller than in control and watered plots (Fig. 1a). Similar differences were found in seed production: in moderately drought-treated plots, individuals produced 2–2.5 times more seeds than in the control and watered plots (Fig. 1b). The researchers believe the most likely explanation for the results is that the experimental drought had an indirect beneficial effect on the performance of the individual horseweed plants. The drought treatments of the previous year (2015) drastically reduced the mass of the originally dominant perennial grasses – the Hungarian fescue (Festuca vaginata) and the sand feathergrass (Stipa borysthenica) – and these grasses could not regenerate until the beginning of the summer of 2016. As a result, the annual horseweed, freed from the oppressive effects of perennial grasses, presumably gained more soil moisture.

The mass of the horseweed observed in the experimental plots is in line with the individual responses presented above. Although the mortality of outbreaks was highest in plots exposed to severe drought (40%, compared to 7–13% in control plots and other treatment plots), its above-ground biomass was 4–14 times higher in drought-treated plots, and the shoot weight measured in the control and watered plots (Fig. 1c). The results obtained in 2016 are confirmed by the fact that the above-ground biomass of the horseweed in the highly drought-treated plots also exceeded the values measured in the control and watered plots in the following two years (2017 and 2018).

The results thus show that the horseweed was found to be sensitive to the two-month summer drought, but its growth and abundance were mainly determined by how the abundance of the species dominant in the grassland changed as a result of precipitation changes. Based on the results obtained so far, the researchers predict that the expected increase in the length and frequency of summer droughts with climate change will favor the survival of the horseweed and even help increase its mass increase in open sand grasslands.

Reference to the paper:

Mojzes, A., Ónodi, G., Lhotsky, B., Kalapos, T., Kröel-Dulay, Gy. (2020) Experimental drought indirectly enhances the individual performance and the abundance of an invasive annual weed. Oecologia 193: 571-581.


Good urban topology can resolve income inequalities encoded in networks of friendships

Rising inequalities are a global problem. In a new study published in the prestigious journal Nature Communications, researchers from ELKH KRTK, ELKH TK, ELTE, Corvinus University, CEU and the International Business School have shown, based on domestic data, that urban topology can have a crucial impact on our social networks, and through this it can also help resolve inequalities.

“The increase in income inequality is coded in our social relations,” says Balázs Lengyel, a researcher at ELKH KRTK and Corvinus University, the correspondent author of the study. “We make friends with similar people, usually by knowing our friend’s friend as well. These are fundamental features of the evolution of social relationships, which can lead to creating segregates in large social networks, such as a city. In most societies, income status is an important similarity factor for friendships, which is why the poor are segregated from the rich in networks of friends. This could lead to a further increase in inequalities, as the information and opportunities needed for prosperity are difficult to get from the rich to the poor.”

The researchers found indirect evidence for this connection using anonymous data from the iWiW network. The study shows that income inequality increased more between 2011 and 2016 in Hungarian cities where the network was segregated and income inequality was high in 2011.

What could be behind the network segregation of cities? The study found that long distances within cities, the concentration of services at the center, and physical barriers in the city, such as railways, rivers, or major roads, all make encounters difficult and increase network segregation.

Urban topology can play a role in reducing network segregation. “Although friendships cannot be formed by regulation, the services available in the city and the elimination of physical barriers can create opportunities for encounters and interactions,” adds Bence Ságvári (ELKH TK), one of the co-authors of the study. One of the important claims of the research is that the transformation of the physical spatial structure through urban topology can contribute to the reduction of inequalities in the long run.

The study, written by Gergő Tóth, Johannes Wachs, Ricardo Di Clemente, Ákos Jakobi, Bence Ságvári, János Kertész and Balázs Lengyel, is freely available in English at this link.

Discovering the origin of our Sun

The Sun is a star that formed 4.6 billion years ago in our Milky Way Galaxy. It is the largest and most massive object in our Solar System, whose energy enables life on our planet. What happened at the time of its birth? Was its formation similar to most stars in our Galaxy, or did it form in special circumstances? ERC grantee Maria Lugaro at the ELKH Konkoly Observatory in Budapest seeks to answer these questions by investigating the Solar System’s chemical origin. Her discoveries could help untangle the secrets of stars’ potential to harbour Earth-like planets, and ultimately life.

Since time immemorial, we have wondered if our planet is unique in the Universe. The answer to this age-old question depends on many factors, including the origin of our Sun. Were the circumstances of our Sun’s birth unique, or was it a typical occurrence? Knowing this is crucial for understanding how our Solar System and life within it compare to other planetary systems.

Our Sun is just one of hundreds of billions of stars in the Galaxy. Stars are born in cold and dense interstellar clouds of dust and gas called stellar nurseries. These star-forming regions of accumulated dust and gas collapse due to gravity and form stars.

Most stars are born in families and several generations may even coexist together in a stellar nursery. As it turns out, it is the size of the Sun’s stellar family that could give scientists clues about the uniqueness of our Solar System.

‘The Sun being born in a small or a large family may have affected its potential to harbour habitable terrestrial planets like Earth,’ says Maria Lugaro, an astrophysicist at the Konkoly Observatory and principal investigator of the ERC-funded RADIOSTAR project, who is exploring the circumstances of the Sun’s birth.

Lugaro is studying how nuclear reactions inside stars produced the chemical matter that builds up our Sun, planets and bodies. To look back 4.6 billion years, Lugaro and her team use radioactive nuclei as clocks that can reveal the time of astrophysical events before and around the Sun’s birth.

Powerful clues to cosmic history

The method they apply is similar to the one in which scientists use carbon-14 to determine the age of fossils and archaeological specimens. Scientists use radioactive elements because they decay in a predictable way. For example, every 5730 years, carbon-14 decays by half.

‘However, if we want to measure cosmic intervals related to the birth of the Sun, we need radioactive clocks that decay in much longer times than carbon-14’, says Lugaro. ‘Approximately twenty such nuclei exist, ranging from aluminium-26, with a decay time of nearly a million years, to nuclei such as curium-247 with a 16-million-year decay time.’

To measure a given cosmic interval using radioactive nuclei, scientists need to know the decay time, which can be measured in nuclear laboratories. They also need to know their value at the point in time in the Universe’s history that they are interested in measuring. Luckily, this historic data is stored in meteorites.

‘We know the numbers of many radioactive nuclei at the time of the Sun’s birth because they can be measured by analysing the composition of meteorites,’ explains Lugaro. ‘These nuclei provide powerful clues to investigate the circumstances of the Sun’s birth, but only if we can understand where they come from.’

Therefore, the project team aims to go even further back into cosmic history. They want to look at the time of the formation of the interstellar cloud that gave birth to the Sun.

The origin of the Sun’s interstellar cloud

In order to reproduce the evolution of the galaxy and stars, scientists are applying sophisticated mathematical programs. This allows them to derive the time that elapsed between the interstellar cloud formation and the Sun’s birth.

‘The longer this time, the more likely the Sun was born in a large family of different generations of stars. While the shorter time would mean it was born with just a few siblings, no parents, no grandparents coexisting, or even alone’, says Lugaro.

So far, Lugaro’s results confirm previous discoveries in this field, indicating that this pre-birth period lasted for at least 10 million years. This suggests that the Sun’s stellar cloud was large enough to allow the birth of several generations of stars.

Just the right amount of water 

Stellar members of our Sun’s large family may have created just the right conditions for the existence of a habitable terrestrial planet like Earth, explains Lugaro. This is because stellar members can produce and eject aluminium-26, whose radioactive decay produces a lot of heat, making ice melt and water evaporate.

Although we think of water as essential for life, too much of it can actually inhibit life. In fact, planets completely covered in water are less likely to sustain life than water-poor planets. That is why the heat created by aluminium-26 may have been essential for our planet, allowing just the right amount of water coverage.

Through the meteoritic analysis, scientists know that there was a lot of aluminium-26 at the Sun’s birth. However, they still do not know if this is a special or ‘normal’ case. ‘If we can understand where the aluminium-26 came from in the young Solar System, then we can have a reason for its origin, and determine how likely this could apply to other stars in the Galaxy’, says Lugaro.

By the end of the project, Lugaro and her team aim to understand the type of stellar nursery in which the Sun was born. Their goal is to produce a picture of the Sun’s birth that explains all radioactive nuclei known to be present in the early Solar System.

Expanding expertise and developing new tools

Lugaro says that the ERC grant enabled her to acquire a permanent position at the Konkoly Observatory, as well as strengthen her research team and develop new tools. She was able to expand her group’s expertise from focusing mostly on the modelling of nuclear reactions in stars to modelling the evolution of the galaxy as well. Her team currently consists of fifteen members with expertise ranging from astrophysics and astronomy to mathematics, computer science and meteoritic science.

‘With the ERC grant, I have been able to develop new concepts and tools and seek answers for topical questions around the Sun’s formation whose understanding is relevant not only for my specific scientific work but for the community as a whole,’ says Lugaro.


New H2020 neutron research project of the ELKH Centre for Energy Research launched in January for industrial introduction of an international materials testing standard

The researchers of the ELKH Centre for Energy Research (ELKH CER) have won an EU H2020 project proposal to promote innovation in Hungary. The CER staff of the Neutron Spectroscopy Department received the nearly EUR 350,000 three-year project grant for the development and introduction of a new industrial testing standard for non-destructive materials. The EASI-STRESS project involves four major European research infrastructures (RIs), one university, two technology transfer companies and seven top industrial enterprises as partners. Four of the latter also have significant industry involvements in Hungary. Subsidiaries of well-known companies such as Airbus, Rolls-Royce and Siemens, EDF (a French nuclear power plant manufacturer), NEMAK (a foundry giant with an automotive supplier factory in Győr, for example), the world’s largest steel producer (Acelor-Mittal) and a 3D metal-printing company (Volum-E) are involved in the work.

One of the research infrastructures participating in the EASI-STRESS project is the Budapest Research Reactor, which operates at the ELKH-CER Csillebérc campus. On the left is the 10-megawatt nuclear reactor building complex, on the right is the reactor core-block and around it a suite of BNC’s neutron diffraction equipment.

The aim of the project is non-destructive X-ray and neutron diffraction analysis of internal residual stresses in materials/components, strengthening the dissemination of the measurement method and tools, and developing new standards in close cooperation with industry. This technique allows a better understanding of the formation of internal residual stresses during the manufacture of various devices and to predict the in-use variation of stresses, and as a result the possible life-time and reliability of the products. In this way, comparing and incorporating directly the measured data into existing industrial design and modelling tools will enable us to produce better products. With the introduction of this method at an industry level, manufacturers will be able to detect defects in the production of components such as the formation of cracks due to poor welds or bending at the wrong speed and temperature. Additionally, as a quality assurance procedure, it will also be possible to identify materials that fatigue due to environmental influences during the use of objects, and potentially increase service life as a result.

The essence of the method is the following: the parameters of the manufacturing processes greatly influence the material structure. For example, in castings, the rate of solidification affects the position of the atoms in the alloy materials, and if the ideal crystal structure is not formed, an ‘internal stress remains’ within the material. By X-ray diffraction on the surface of the components, while with neutrons in the bulk of the materials we can ‘see’ the atomic level microstructure and the internal stress value and distribution can be calculated from the diffraction patterns.

BNC staff have significant experience in neutron diffraction stress analysis – this is why they have been invited to this EU project. The image on the left shows the sample table of one of the BNC’s spectrometers, where the microstructure of a gas turbine wheel is being tested. On the right is an experimental set-up with a bending device for the sample in the neutron beam, thus enabling in-situ stress generation during the neutron diffraction measurements.

In the modern production of machine parts, heat treatment and shaping by mechanical deformation are often used simultaneously. For example, in the case of multicomponent alloys, the metallurgical or phase composition in the object, including the residual stresses, depends on the processes used. In engineering design, large software packages have been developed to model such processes, the experimental validation of which is a prerequisite for the introduction of design results into production. Diffraction stress analysis is one of the most efficient non-destructive experimental methods, which means that the standardization of such measurement procedures would allow for industry-wide application. Incorporating this knowledge tool into the design process of metallic parts will result in reduced material consumption and more reliable and longer-lasting products, which would also mean significant environment and cost savings.

In the project, the industrial companies will define and produce test samples according to their profile, and also providing real components for the experiments. Diffraction measurements are to be performed by RIs, X-ray examinations at the two largest European synchrotron sources (ESRF-Grenoble, HZG-Hamburg), neutron experiments at the world’s largest neutron research facility (ILL-Grenoble) and at the Budapest Neutron Centre (BNC) as the largest Hungarian research infrastructure, a unit of the ELKH-CER. The University of Manchester, as well as the Danish and French tech-transfer companies (DTI, CETIM), will ensure the coordination of modelling and validation, while they will also be responsible for introducing the procedure as a European standard.




Drug residues can affect fish body and scale shape

Pharmaceutically active compounds (PhACs) in natural waters can affect the shape of the body and scales of fish – researchers from the Hungarian University of Agriculture and Life Sciences (MATE) have stated, based on water and fish samples taken from small watercourses in the Budapest Metropolitan Area. Examination of imperceptible deformations using new types of data can help estimate the environmental risks of micropollutants. The study was carried out as part of an NVKP project led by the ELKH Research Centre for Astronomy and Earth Sciences, with the additional participation of the Centre for Ecological Research.

“The current wastewater treatment technologies are unable to remove drug residues, which means these residues can pass through wastewater treatment plants more or less unhindered. As a result, we were able to detect 54 different active substances in the water samples taken from the small watercourses of the Budapest agglomeration. However, in the framework of this complex project, we were also curious to see if there was any correlation between the presence of the pharmaceutically active compounds and the shape of the fish in the given watercourse,” emphasizes Dr. Ádám Staszny, an expert at the MATE Institute of Aquaculture and Environmental Safety.

According to the results published in the prestigious journal PeerJ on February 11, four of the detected active substances were clearly found to cause changes in the shape of fish. These were the antidepressant drug citalopram, propranolol for cardiovascular disease, codeine for rheumatic pain, and trimetazidine for coronary heart disease.

“These PhACs have been found in very low concentrations (typically at the ngL-1 level) in natural waters, which means that they have a negligible effect on human health. However, their mixtures did have an effect on fish,” points out Dr. Staszny. He added that further studies are needed to understand the exact mechanism of the phenomenon uncovered, but it seems that the new method may also be promising in relation to ecotoxicological practice.

The study was supported by the National Competitiveness and Excellence Program, Hungary (project number: NVKP_16-1-2016-0003, project leader: Dr. Attila Csaba Kondor). In the framework of the project, the researchers led by the Research Centre for Astronomy and Earth Sciences (CSFK) investigated measurable PhACs concentrations and their possible risks in the waters of the Budapest Metropolitan Area. The research focusing on fish was coordinated by the Department of Freshwater Fish Ecology, MATE Institute of Aquaculture and Environmental Safety (coordinators: Dr. András Weiperth and Vera Juhász) under the leadership of Dr. Árpád Ferencz.

Vortex indicating planet formation observed by an international research team led by CSFK astronomer

József Varga, an astronomer at the Leiden University and the ELKH Konkoly Observatory, Research Centre for Astronomy and Earth Sciences, is the leader of an international research group that discovered a vortex of gas and dust around a young star with the new MATISSE instrument in Chile, which was built with Hungarian contribution. Researchers say it is possible that a nascent planet is also hiding in the vortex. The celestial body HD 163296 under investigation is a much-studied young star located 330 light-years from Earth in the Sagittarius constellation. Earlier, evidence for the presence of three large exoplanets around the star had been found, though they are much farther away from the fourth supposed planet that has now been discovered.

During their observations in March and June 2019, the researchers studied the inner dust disk around the star with their telescopes, during which they observed a ring of warm dust particles at a distance from the star comparable to Mercury’s orbit around our Sun. They were surprised to find that one side of the disk was much brighter than the other. Subsequently, after comparing to previous measurements, it was concluded that this bright cluster is orbiting the star with an orbital period of approximately one month. Astronomers have also used computer simulations to verify their hypothesis that this cluster of hot dust could actually be a vortex. Such vortices have a higher density and pressure of matter (gas and dust) than the rest of the disk, which, according to current planet formation theories, creates the perfect conditions for the birth of a new planet. This is because the formation of a planet originally requires dust particles consisting of small particles like smoke. The grains of dust stick together, forming larger and larger particles, until they eventually form a planet under the influence of gravity. The process of planet formation is still unclear in many respects, but discoveries like this one bring us closer to the understanding the birth of planets such as Earth.

Schematic image of the dust disk around the star HD 163296 in infrared light. The bright part in the upper right is the supposed vortex where a new planet can form. (©) J. Varga et al.

The researchers made their observations leading to the discovery with MATISSE (Multi AperTure mid-Infrared SpectroScopic Experiment). This is the next-generation instrument of the VLTI (Very Large Telescope Interferometer) which is a telescope network at the European Southern Observatory’s (ESO) Paranal Observatory in Chile. VLTI combines the light of four telescopes, creating a virtual telescope of up to 200 meters in diameter. This is necessary because even today’s largest 10-meter-diameter optical telescopes alone would not be able to resolve the now-discovered orbital disk, but by combining the light from multiple telescopes — by increasing the resolution — this becomes possible. MATISSE detects infrared light emitted by the dust in the disk as thermal radiation.

The MATISSE instrument is located at the Paranal Observatory of the European Southern Observatory (ESO). (©)

The MATISSE instrument was largely built in collaboration of research institutes in France, Germany, the Netherlands, and Austria, though engineers from the CSFK Institute of Astronomy also took part in its creation. The contribution by Hungarian engineers included the thermal simulation of the instrument with respect to the thermal load caused by motors operating at temperatures near absolute zero degrees, the design and manufacture of a calibration camera of an instrument unit in Hungary, and the calculation of possible vibrations during the transport of MATISSE. The instrument was mounted on the Chilean telescope system at the turn of 2017-2018, and saw its ‘first light’ in 2018, i.e. it was directed at a celestial object for the first time in that year. In recognition of the Hungarian technical contribution, the researchers at the CSFK Institute of Astronomy were given a guaranteed observation opportunity on the instrument, with the aim to examine young eruptive stars showing large brightness changes. In addition, József Varga, an astronomer at CSFK, who is currently working at Leiden University as an internationally recognized expert in the MATISSE Team, is participating in MATISSE’s large research program on star formation with his Dutch colleagues. The first result of this major research is the discovery of a vortex in a disk around the star HD 163296.

For the astronomers, the first real scientific findings of the MATISSE consortium mark the beginning of further research on star formation. One of their goals is to study even more star systems where the young star is surrounded by a disk of dust and gas, thereby gaining an even better understanding of the formation process of planets like Earth. The research group of the CSFK Institute of Astronomy, led by Péter Ábrahám, continues to participate in the research project, the work of which is supported by NKFIH’s four-year fundamental research grant.

The article on the new results has already been accepted by the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics. The article, which includes the name of József Varga and two other Hungarian astronomers among its authors, will be published soon.

The article is available at:

The asymmetric inner disk of the Herbig Ae star HD 163296 in the eyes of VLTI/MATISSE: evidence for a vortex? J. Varga et. al., accepted for publication in Astronomy & Astrophysics.

Original: https://doi.org/10.1051/0004-6361/202039400

Freely accessible (in English): https://arxiv.org/abs/2012.05697v1

Contact: József Varga; varga@strw.leidenuniv.nl


A unique new method developed by researchers in Szeged uses the most advanced artificial intelligence to enable a more thorough examination of the brain cells’ function

There is an increasingly strong emphasis on mapping the unique properties of cells in life science research. This is extremely important because the unique characteristics of the building blocks of various organs and tissues provide important information for better understanding the background of malfunctions and the earliest possible detection of disease processes. Researchers at the ELKH Szeged Biological Research Centre and the University of Szeged have developed a unique new method for studying the physiological function of brain cells. With their proprietary, artificial intelligence-controlled, automated microscope system, they are able to find any cell within a living tissue sample, stimulate cells with predefined characteristics, and collect biological information by recording response processes. The developed new method may open up new perspectives in the early diagnosis and understanding of such worldwide spread diseases as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease, thus supporting the development of effective therapies.

The Biological Image Processing and Machine Learning Working Group of the ELKH Szeged Biological Research Centre led by bioinformatician Dr Péter Horváth, and Dr Gábor Tamás, professor of neurobiology, head of the Cerebral Neural Networks Research Group at the University of Szeged, have been working together for several years on system microscopy solutions that have opened new avenues for the study of individual cells. Their latest development is the Autopatcher, an electrophysiological procedure using artificial intelligence, which was featured in the highly prestigious journal Nature Communications on February 10. The method is unique in several respects: cell tests are performed on native (unstained or otherwise unlabeled) brain tissue samples using machine vision and artificial intelligence. Using deep learning algorithms, the software, based on the analysis of thousands of images, is able to automatically determine the location of the micropipette integrated into the microscope based on the camera image and precisely move the pipette, automatically detecting target cells and their spatial displacement. Depending on the purpose of the test, the artificial intelligence-controlled system selects each target cell to ensure that the success of the measurement is as high as possible. The new technology will contribute, among others, to the discovery of new human cell types or a better understanding of the connections of brain neurons. Professor Gábor Tamás had previously discovered a new type of human brain cell in a similar way, and the new method just developed also anticipates further discoveries of great significance.

Machine vision and automation

Machine learning – i.e. artificial intelligence, or one of its varieties called deep learning – algorithms based on the images of the camera built into the microscope system control the micropipette. Machine vision provides much more precise targeting, measured in micrometers, than the human eye. After the machine-learning phase, the system is already able to detect specific cell types in an unknown brain tissue sample. A miniature electrode built into a pipette directed to the membrane of the selected cell is capable of individually stimulating the cells. By following the response to finely controlled stimulation, important information about physiological cell activity can be obtained without damaging the cell. In other cases, using the air pressure control system built into the pipette, it is possible to remove even the nucleus and the cytoplasm, and carry out molecular single-cell analysis on this basis, which can be an important source of genetic information, for example in combination with gene sequencing, explains Krisztián Koós, the first author of a paper published by the research group. The research and the development of the microscope system have great long-term potential: they can put drug trials on a new footing, for example, by allowing cell-level drug effects to be traced on a living tissue sample. By installing another micropipette, the system can make it possible to investigate the connections between neurons: to determine the characteristics of the cellular response to stimulation, and analyze the influence of stimulus propagation.

Unlabeled, precise cell analysis

Label-free examination of cells is another important innovation of the development project carried out in Szeged. Staining methods widely used to identify cell types (e.g. fluorescent staining) necessarily result in cell death in living tissues, so studies of cell function are precluded. Although there are other, less drastic cell labeling methods (e.g. genetically modified fluorescent cell labeling methods), their use is not feasible for many cell types. This means that native (unstained) cell testing overcomes a number of disadvantages that have so far hampered the testing of individual cells.

The operation of an automated system microscope is clearly illustrated in this video.


The system plans the path of the pipette to approach the target cell and avoids any obstructions. (Source: Nature Communications)