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Cobbles on a beach Cobbles Nash Point.jpg
Cobbles on a beach
River Rhone flowing into Lake Geneva. Sediments make the water appear brownish-grey; they are an indicator of increased water runoff, land degradation, erosion due to intensive industrialized land use, land sealing, and poor soil management. Leman img 0573.jpg
River Rhône flowing into Lake Geneva. Sediments make the water appear brownish-grey; they are an indicator of increased water runoff, land degradation, erosion due to intensive industrialized land use, land sealing, and poor soil management.

Sediment is a naturally occurring material that is broken down by processes of weathering and erosion, and is subsequently transported by the action of wind, water, or ice or by the force of gravity acting on the particles. For example, sand and silt can be carried in suspension in river water and on reaching the sea bed deposited by sedimentation. If buried, they may eventually become sandstone and siltstone (sedimentary rocks) through lithification.

Weathering Breaking down of rocks, soil and minerals as well as artificial materials through contact with the Earths atmosphere, biota and waters

Weathering is the breaking down of rocks, soil, and minerals as well as wood and artificial materials through contact with the Earth's atmosphere, water, and biological organisms. Weathering occurs in situ, that is, in the same place, with little or no movement, and thus should not be confused with erosion, which involves the movement of rocks and minerals by agents such as water, ice, snow, wind, waves and gravity and then being transported and deposited in other locations.

Erosion Processes which remove soil and rock from one place on the Earths crust, then transport it to another location where it is deposited

In earth science, erosion is the action of surface processes that removes soil, rock, or dissolved material from one location on the Earth's crust, and then transports it to another location. This natural process is caused by the dynamic activity of erosive agents, that is, water, ice (glaciers), snow, air (wind), plants, animals, and humans. In accordance with these agents, erosion is sometimes divided into water erosion, glacial erosion, snow erosion, wind (aeolic) erosion, zoogenic erosion, and anthropogenic erosion. The particulate breakdown of rock or soil into clastic sediment is referred to as physical or mechanical erosion; this contrasts with chemical erosion, where soil or rock material is removed from an area by its dissolving into a solvent, followed by the flow away of that solution. Eroded sediment or solutes may be transported just a few millimetres, or for thousands of kilometres.

Sediment transport The movement of solid particles, typically by gravity and fluid entrainment

Sediment transport is the movement of solid particles (sediment), typically due to a combination of gravity acting on the sediment, and/or the movement of the fluid in which the sediment is entrained. Sediment transport occurs in natural systems where the particles are clastic rocks, mud, or clay; the fluid is air, water, or ice; and the force of gravity acts to move the particles along the sloping surface on which they are resting. Sediment transport due to fluid motion occurs in rivers, oceans, lakes, seas, and other bodies of water due to currents and tides. Transport is also caused by glaciers as they flow, and on terrestrial surfaces under the influence of wind. Sediment transport due only to gravity can occur on sloping surfaces in general, including hillslopes, scarps, cliffs, and the continental shelf—continental slope boundary.


Sediments are most often transported by water (fluvial processes), but also wind (aeolian processes) and glaciers. Beach sands and river channel deposits are examples of fluvial transport and deposition, though sediment also often settles out of slow-moving or standing water in lakes and oceans. Desert sand dunes and loess are examples of aeolian transport and deposition. Glacial moraine deposits and till are ice-transported sediments.

Aeolian processes Processes due to wind activity

Aeolian processes, also spelled eolian or æolian, pertain to wind activity in the study of geology and weather and specifically to the wind's ability to shape the surface of the Earth. Winds may erode, transport, and deposit materials and are effective agents in regions with sparse vegetation, a lack of soil moisture and a large supply of unconsolidated sediments. Although water is a much more powerful eroding force than wind, aeolian processes are important in arid environments such as deserts.

Glacier Persistent body of ice that is moving under its own weight

A glacier is a persistent body of dense ice that is constantly moving under its own weight; it forms where the accumulation of snow exceeds its ablation over many years, often centuries. Glaciers slowly deform and flow due to stresses induced by their weight, creating crevasses, seracs, and other distinguishing features. They also abrade rock and debris from their substrate to create landforms such as cirques and moraines. Glaciers form only on land and are distinct from the much thinner sea ice and lake ice that form on the surface of bodies of water.

Deposition (geology) Geological process in which sediments, soil and rocks are added to a landform or land mass

Deposition is the geological process in which sediments, soil and rocks are added to a landform or land mass. Wind, ice, water, and gravity transport previously weathered surface material, which, at the loss of enough kinetic energy in the fluid, is deposited, building up layers of sediment.


Sediment in the Gulf of Mexico Sediment in the Gulf of Mexico.jpg
Sediment in the Gulf of Mexico
Sediment off the Yucatan Peninsula Sediment off the Yucatan Peninsula.jpg
Sediment off the Yucatán Peninsula

Sediment can be classified based on its grain size or composition.

Grain size

Sediment size is measured on a log base 2 scale, called the "Phi" scale, which classifies particles by size from "colloid" to "boulder".

φ scaleSize range
Size range
Aggregate class
Other names
< -8> 256 mm> 10.1 in Boulder
-6 to -864–256 mm2.5–10.1 in Cobble
-5 to -632–64 mm1.26–2.5 inVery coarse gravel Pebble
-4 to -516–32 mm0.63–1.26 inCoarse gravelPebble
-3 to -48–16 mm0.31–0.63 inMedium gravelPebble
-2 to -34–8 mm0.157–0.31 inFine gravelPebble
-1 to -22–4 mm0.079–0.157 inVery fine gravel Granule
0 to -11–2 mm0.039–0.079 inVery coarse sand
1 to 00.5–1 mm0.020–0.039 inCoarse sand
2 to 10.25–0.5 mm0.010–0.020 inMedium sand
3 to 2125–250 µm 0.0049–0.010 inFine sand
4 to 362.5–125 µm0.0025–0.0049 inVery fine sand
8 to 43.9–62.5 µm0.00015–0.0025 in Silt Mud
> 8< 3.9 µm< 0.00015 in Clay Mud
>10< 1 µm< 0.000039 in Colloid Mud


Composition of sediment can be measured in terms of:

Rock (geology) A naturally occurring solid aggregate of one or more minerals or mineraloids

A rock is any naturally occurring solid mass or aggregate of minerals or mineraloid matter. It is categorized by the minerals included, its chemical composition and the way in which it is formed. Rocks are usually grouped into three main groups: igneous rocks, metamorphic rocks and sedimentary rocks. Rocks form the Earth's outer solid layer, the crust.

Lithology science of rocks

The lithology of a rock unit is a description of its physical characteristics visible at outcrop, in hand or core samples, or with low magnification microscopy. Physical characteristics include colour, texture, grain size, and composition. Lithology may refer to either a detailed description of these characteristics, or a summary of the gross physical character of a rock. Lithology is the basis of subdividing rock sequences into individual lithostratigraphic units for the purposes of mapping and correlation between areas. In certain applications, such as site investigations, lithology is described using a standard terminology such as in the European geotechnical standard Eurocode 7.

Mineral Element or chemical compound that is normally crystalline and that has been formed as a result of geological processes

A mineral is, broadly speaking, a solid chemical compound that occurs naturally in pure form. A rock may consist of a single mineral, or may be an aggregate of two or more different minerals, spacially segregated into distinct phases. Compounds that occur only in living beings are usually excluded, but some minerals are often biogenic and/or are organic compounds in the sense of chemistry. Moreover, living beings often synthesize inorganic minerals that also occur in rocks.

This leads to an ambiguity in which clay can be used as both a size-range and a composition (see clay minerals).

Clay A finely-grained natural rock or soil material that combines one or more clay minerals

Clay is a finely-grained natural rock or soil material that combines one or more clay minerals with possible traces of quartz (SiO2), metal oxides (Al2O3, MgO etc.) and organic matter. Geologic clay deposits are mostly composed of phyllosilicate minerals containing variable amounts of water trapped in the mineral structure. Clays are plastic due to particle size and geometry as well as water content, and become hard, brittle and non–plastic upon drying or firing. Depending on the soil's content in which it is found, clay can appear in various colours from white to dull grey or brown to deep orange-red.

Sediment transport

Sediment builds up on human-made breakwaters because they reduce the speed of water flow, so the stream cannot carry as much sediment load. StoneFormationInWater.jpg
Sediment builds up on human-made breakwaters because they reduce the speed of water flow, so the stream cannot carry as much sediment load.
Glacial transport of boulders. These boulders will be deposited as the glacier retreats. Glacial Transportation and Deposition.jpg
Glacial transport of boulders. These boulders will be deposited as the glacier retreats.

Sediment is transported based on the strength of the flow that carries it and its own size, volume, density, and shape. Stronger flows will increase the lift and drag on the particle, causing it to rise, while larger or denser particles will be more likely to fall through the flow.

Fluvial processes: rivers, streams, and overland flow

Particle motion

Rivers and streams carry sediment in their flows. This sediment can be in a variety of locations within the flow, depending on the balance between the upwards velocity on the particle (drag and lift forces), and the settling velocity of the particle. These relationships are shown in the following table for the Rouse number, which is a ratio of sediment fall velocity to upwards velocity.

Terminal velocity highest velocity attainable by an object as it falls through a fluid

Terminal velocity is the highest velocity attainable by an object as it falls through a fluid. It occurs when the sum of the drag force (Fd) and the buoyancy is equal to the downward force of gravity (FG) acting on the object. Since the net force on the object is zero, the object has zero acceleration.

The Rouse number is a non-dimensional number in fluid dynamics which is used to define a concentration profile of suspended sediment and which also determines how sediment will be transported in a flowing fluid. It is a ratio between the sediment fall velocity and the upwards velocity on the grain as a product of the von Kármán constant and the shear velocity .


Hjulstrom curve: The velocities of currents required for erosion, transportation, and deposition (sedimentation) of sediment particles of different sizes. Hjulstroms diagram en.PNG
Hjulström curve: The velocities of currents required for erosion, transportation, and deposition (sedimentation) of sediment particles of different sizes.
Mode of TransportRouse Number
Bed load >2.5
Suspended load: 50% Suspended>1.2, <2.5
Suspended load: 100% Suspended>0.8, <1.2
Wash load <0.8

If the upwards velocity is approximately equal to the settling velocity, sediment will be transported downstream entirely as suspended load. If the upwards velocity is much less than the settling velocity, but still high enough for the sediment to move (see Initiation of motion), it will move along the bed as bed load by rolling, sliding, and saltating (jumping up into the flow, being transported a short distance then settling again). If the upwards velocity is higher than the settling velocity, the sediment will be transported high in the flow as wash load.

As there are generally a range of different particle sizes in the flow, it is common for material of different sizes to move through all areas of the flow for given stream conditions.

Fluvial bedforms

Modern asymmetric ripples developed in sand on the floor of the Hunter River, New South Wales, Australia. Flow direction is from right to left. Ripples mcr1.JPG
Modern asymmetric ripples developed in sand on the floor of the Hunter River, New South Wales, Australia. Flow direction is from right to left.
Sinuous-crested dunes exposed at low tide in the Cornwallis River near Wolfville, Nova Scotia Sinuous dunes mcr1.JPG
Sinuous-crested dunes exposed at low tide in the Cornwallis River near Wolfville, Nova Scotia
Ancient channel deposit in the Stellarton Formation (Pennsylvanian), Coalburn Pit, near Thorburn, Nova Scotia. Channel-StellartonFm-CoalburnPit.JPG
Ancient channel deposit in the Stellarton Formation (Pennsylvanian), Coalburn Pit, near Thorburn, Nova Scotia.

Sediment motion can create self-organized structures such as ripples, dunes, or antidunes on the river or stream bed. These bedforms are often preserved in sedimentary rocks and can be used to estimate the direction and magnitude of the flow that deposited the sediment.

Surface runoff

Overland flow can erode soil particles and transport them downslope. The erosion associated with overland flow may occur through different methods depending on meteorological and flow conditions.

  • If the initial impact of rain droplets dislodges soil, the phenomenon is called rainsplash erosion.
  • If overland flow is directly responsible for sediment entrainment but does not form gullies, it is called "sheet erosion".
  • If the flow and the substrate permit channelization, gullies may form; this is termed "gully erosion".

Key fluvial depositional environments

The major fluvial (river and stream) environments for deposition of sediments include:

Aeolian processes: wind

Wind results in the transportation of fine sediment and the formation of sand dune fields and soils from airborne dust.

Glacial processes

Glacial sediments from Montana GLMsed.jpg
Glacial sediments from Montana

Glaciers carry a wide range of sediment sizes, and deposit it in moraines.

Mass balance

The overall balance between sediment in transport and sediment being deposited on the bed is given by the Exner equation. This expression states that the rate of increase in bed elevation due to deposition is proportional to the amount of sediment that falls out of the flow. This equation is important in that changes in the power of the flow change the ability of the flow to carry sediment, and this is reflected in the patterns of erosion and deposition observed throughout a stream. This can be localized, and simply due to small obstacles; examples are scour holes behind boulders, where flow accelerates, and deposition on the inside of meander bends. Erosion and deposition can also be regional; erosion can occur due to dam removal and base level fall. Deposition can occur due to dam emplacement that causes the river to pool and deposit its entire load, or due to base level rise.

Shores and shallow seas

Seas, oceans, and lakes accumulate sediment over time. The sediment can consist of terrigenous material, which originates on land, but may be deposited in either terrestrial, marine, or lacustrine (lake) environments, or of sediments (often biological) originating in the body of water. Terrigenous material is often supplied by nearby rivers and streams or reworked marine sediment (e.g. sand). In the mid-ocean, the exoskeletons of dead organisms are primarily responsible for sediment accumulation.

Deposited sediments are the source of sedimentary rocks, which can contain fossils of the inhabitants of the body of water that were, upon death, covered by accumulating sediment. Lake bed sediments that have not solidified into rock can be used to determine past climatic conditions.

Key marine depositional environments

Holocene eolianite and a carbonate beach on Long Island, Bahamas. EolianiteLongIsland.JPG
Holocene eolianite and a carbonate beach on Long Island, Bahamas.

The major areas for deposition of sediments in the marine environment include:

One other depositional environment which is a mixture of fluvial and marine is the turbidite system, which is a major source of sediment to the deep sedimentary and abyssal basins as well as the deep oceanic trenches.

Any depression in a marine environment where sediments accumulate over time is known as a sediment trap.

The null point theory explains how sediment deposition undergoes a hydrodynamic sorting process within the marine environment leading to a seaward fining of sediment grain size.

Environmental issues

Erosion and agricultural sediment delivery to rivers

One cause of high sediment loads is slash and burn and shifting cultivation of tropical forests. When the ground surface is stripped of vegetation and then seared of all living organisms, the upper soils are vulnerable to both wind and water erosion. In a number of regions of the earth, entire sectors of a country have become erodible. For example, on the Madagascar high central plateau, which constitutes approximately ten percent of that country's land area, most of the land area is devegetated, and gullies have eroded into the underlying soil in furrows typically in excess of 50 meters deep and one kilometer wide.[ citation needed ] This siltation results in discoloration of rivers to a dark red brown color and leads to fish kills.

Erosion is also an issue in areas of modern farming, where the removal of native vegetation for the cultivation and harvesting of a single type of crop has left the soil unsupported. Many of these regions are near rivers and drainages. Loss of soil due to erosion removes useful farmland, adds to sediment loads, and can help transport anthropogenic fertilizers into the river system, which leads to eutrophication.

The Sediment Delivery Ratio (SDR) is fraction of gross erosion (interill, rill, gully and stream erosion) that is expected to be delivered to the outlet of the river. [1] The sediment transfer and deposition can be modelled with sediment distribution models such as WaTEM/SEDEM. [2] In Europe, according to WaTEM/SEDEM model estimates the Sediment Delivery Ratio is about 15%. [3]

Coastal Development and Sedimentation near Coral Reefs

Watershed development near coral reefs is a primary cause of sediment-related coral stress.The stripping of natural vegetation in the watershed for development exposes soil to increased wind and rainfall, and as a result, can cause exposed sediment to become more susceptible to erosion and delivery to the marine environment during rainfall events. Sediment can negatively affect corals in many ways, such as by physically smothering them, abrading their surfaces, causing corals to expend energy during sediment removal, and causing algal blooms that can ultimately lead to less space on the seafloor where juvenile corals (polyps) can settle.

When sediments are introduced into the coastal regions of the ocean, the proportion of land, marine and organic-derived sediment that characterizes the seafloor near sources of sediment output is altered. In addition, because the source of sediment (i.e. land, ocean, or organically) is often correlated with how coarse or fine sediment grain sizes that characterize an area are on average, grain size distribution of sediment will shift according to relative input of land (typically fine), marine (typically coarse), and organically-derived (variable with age) sediment. These alterations in marine sediment characterize the amount of sediment that is suspended in the water column at any given time and sediment-related coral stress.

See also

Related Research Articles

Sedimentary rock Rock formed by the deposition and subsequent cementation of material

Sedimentary rocks are types of rock that are formed by the accumulation or deposition of small particles and subsequent cementation of mineral or organic particles on the floor of oceans or other bodies of water at the Earth's surface. Sedimentation is the collective name for processes that cause these particles to settle in place. The particles that form a sedimentary rock are called sediment, and may be composed of geological detritus (minerals) or biological detritus. Before being deposited, the geological detritus was formed by weathering and erosion from the source area, and then transported to the place of deposition by water, wind, ice, mass movement or glaciers, which are called agents of denudation. Biological detritus was formed by bodies and parts of dead aquatic organisms, as well as their fecal mass, suspended in water and slowly piling up on the floor of water bodies. Sedimentation may also occur as dissolved minerals precipitate from water solution.

Till Unsorted glacial sediment

Till or glacial till is unsorted glacial sediment.

Alluvial fan A fan- or cone-shaped deposit of sediment crossed and built up by streams

Alluvial fans are triangular-shaped deposits of water-transported material, often referred to as alluvium. They are an example of an unconsolidated sedimentary deposit and tend to be larger and more prominent in arid to semi-arid regions. These alluvial fans typically form in elevated or even mountainous regions where there is a rapid change in slope from a high to low gradient. The river or stream carrying the sediment flows at a relatively high velocity due to the high slope angle which is why coarse material is able to remain in the flow. When the slope decreases rapidly into a relatively plain or plateau, the stream loses the energy it needs to move its sediment. Deposition subsequently occurs and the sediment ultimately spreads out, creating an alluvial fan. Three primary zones occur within an alluvial fan which includes the proximal fan, medial fan, and the distal fan.

Fluvial processes Processes associated with rivers and streams

In geography and geology, fluvial processes are associated with rivers and streams and the deposits and landforms created by them. When the stream or rivers are associated with glaciers, ice sheets, or ice caps, the term glaciofluvial or fluvioglacial is used.

Turbidite The geologic deposit of a turbidity current

A turbidite is the geologic deposit of a turbidity current, which is a type of sediment gravity flow responsible for distributing vast amounts of clastic sediment into the deep ocean.

Clastic rock type of sedimentary rock

Clastic rocks are composed of fragments, or clasts, of pre-existing minerals and rock. A clast is a fragment of geological detritus, chunks and smaller grains of rock broken off other rocks by physical weathering. Geologists use the term clastic with reference to sedimentary rocks as well as to particles in sediment transport whether in suspension or as bed load, and in sediment deposits.

An overbank is an alluvial geological deposit consisting of sediment that has been deposited on the floodplain of a river or stream by flood waters that have broken through or overtopped the banks. The sediment is carried in suspension, and because it is carried outside of the main channel, away from faster flow, the sediment is typically fine-grained. An overbank deposit usually consists primarily of fine sand, silt and clay. Overbank deposits can be beneficial because they refresh valley soils.


In geology, cross-bedding, also known as cross-stratification, is layering within a stratum and at an angle to the main bedding plane. The sedimentary structures which result are roughly horizontal units composed of inclined layers. The original depositional layering is tilted, such tilting not being the result of post-depositional deformation. Cross-beds or "sets" are the groups of inclined layers, which are known as cross-strata.

Graded bedding

In geology, a graded bed is one characterized by a systematic change in grain or clast size from one side of the bed to the other. Most commonly this takes the form of normal grading, with coarser sediments at the base, which grade upward into progressively finer ones. Normally graded beds generally represent depositional environments which decrease in transport energy as time passes, but these beds can also form during rapid depositional events. They are perhaps best represented in turbidite strata, where they indicate a sudden strong current that deposits heavy, coarse sediments first, with finer ones following as the current weakens. They can also form in terrestrial stream deposits.

Hjulström curve graph used by hydrologists and geologists to determine whether a river will erode, transport, or deposit sediment

The Hjulström curve, named after Filip Hjulström (1902–1982), is a graph used by hydrologists and geologists to determine whether a river will erode, transport, or deposit sediment. It was originally published in his doctoral thesis "Studies of the morphological activity of rivers as illustrated by the River Fyris." in 1935. The graph takes sediment particle size and water velocity into account.

Abrasion (geology)

Abrasion is a process of erosion which occurs when material being transported wears away at a surface over time. It is the process of friction caused by scuffing, scratching, wearing down, marring, and rubbing away of materials. The intensity of abrasion depends on the hardness, concentration, velocity and mass of the moving particles. Abrasion generally occurs four ways. Glaciation slowly grinds rocks picked up by ice against rock surfaces. Solid objects transported in river channels make abrasive surface contact with the bed and walls. Objects transported in waves breaking on coastlines cause abrasion. And, finally, abrasion can be caused by wind transporting sand or small stones against surface rocks.

Depositional environment The combination of physical, chemical and biological processes associated with the deposition of a particular type of sediment

In geology, depositional environment or sedimentary environment describes the combination of physical, chemical and biological processes associated with the deposition of a particular type of sediment and, therefore, the rock types that will be formed after lithification, if the sediment is preserved in the rock record. In most cases the environments associated with particular rock types or associations of rock types can be matched to existing analogues. However, the further back in geological time sediments were deposited, the more likely that direct modern analogues are not available.

The suspended load of a flow of fluid, such as a river, is the portion of its sediment uplifted by the fluid's flow in the process of sediment transportation. It is kept suspended by the fluid's turbulence. The suspended load generally consists of smaller particles, like clay, silt, and fine sands.

Sedimentary structures include all kinds of features formed at the time of deposition. Sediments and sedimentary rocks are characterized by bedding, which occurs when layers of sediment, with different particle sizes are deposited on top of each other. These beds range from millimeters to centimeters thick and can even go to meters or multiple meters thick.

A bedrock river is a river that has little to no alluvium mantling the bedrock over which it flows. However, most bedrock rivers are not pure forms; they are a combination of a bedrock channel and an alluvial channel. The way one can distinguish between bedrock rivers and alluvial rivers is through the extent of sediment cover.

A contourite is a sedimentary deposit commonly formed on continental rise to lower slope settings, although they may occur anywhere that is below storm wave base. Countourites are produced by thermohaline-induced deepwater bottom currents and may be influenced by wind or tidal forces. The geomorphology of contourite deposits is mainly influenced by the deepwater bottom-current velocity, sediment supply, and seafloor topography.

Stream competency

In hydrology stream competency, also known as stream competence, is a measure of the maximum size of particles a stream can transport. The particles are made up of grain sizes ranging from large to small and include boulders, rocks, pebbles, sand, silt, and clay. These particles make up the bed load of the stream. Stream competence was originally simplified by the “sixth-power-law,” which states the mass of a particle that can be moved is proportional to the velocity of the river raised to the sixth power. This refers to the stream bed velocity which is difficult to measure or estimate due to the many factors that cause slight variances in stream velocities.

Sediment gravity flow

A sediment gravity flow is one of several types of sediment transport mechanisms, of which most geologists recognize four principal processes. These flows are differentiated by their dominant sediment support mechanisms, which can be difficult to distinguish as flows can be in transition from one type to the next as they evolve downslope.


  1. Fernandez, C.; Wu, J. Q.; McCool, D. K.; Stöckle, C. O. (2003-05-01). "Estimating water erosion and sediment yield with GIS, RUSLE, and SEDD". Journal of Soil and Water Conservation. 58 (3): 128–136. ISSN   0022-4561.
  2. Van Rompaey, Anton J. J.; Verstraeten, Gert; Van Oost, Kristof; Govers, Gerard; Poesen, Jean (2001-10-01). "Modelling mean annual sediment yield using a distributed approach". Earth Surface Processes and Landforms. 26 (11): 1221–1236. doi:10.1002/esp.275. ISSN   1096-9837.
  3. Borrelli, P.; Van Oost, K.; Meusburger, K.; Alewell, C.; Lugato, E.; Panagos, P. (2018-02-01). "A step towards a holistic assessment of soil degradation in Europe: Coupling on-site erosion with sediment transfer and carbon fluxes". Environmental Research. 161: 291–298. doi:10.1016/j.envres.2017.11.009. ISSN   0013-9351. PMC   5773246 . PMID   29175727.