News Round-Up January 2016

Hello, and welcome to the #bioscinews round-up! This is the place where you can find all the important biosci new stories from the past week, in a short, digestible paragraph.

The start of the year is always a busy one, with having to settle back into work/studies and coming to terms with the fact that the next major holiday is months and months away (weep), so hence this post will be a whole month’s news round up instead of a weekly news round-up. We shall get back to the weekly news round-ups next week! Until then, enjoy what January had to offer…

This month’s news

The mummified remains of “Ötzi the Iceman” were originally found in the Austrian alps in 1991, but continue to provide fascinating insights into the lives of the Chalcolithic Europeans. These Europeans lived during the Copper Age, the beginning of the Bronze Age, around 3000-5000 years ago. The most recent study to focus on Ötzi has revealed that, at the time of his death, he had a strain of the Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) bacteria in his stomach. H. pylori is linked to severe inflammation in the digestive system and can lead to certain cancers. However, it does not match the strain which currently tends to inhabit European stomachs. The authors suggest this may reveal new findings concerning human migration patterns at the time and, while the discovery is exciting, caution must be taken when drawing conclusions from a single data point.

sn-iceman

In further human evolution news, there may be links between Neanderthals and our immune systems. Comparisons between human (Homo sapiens) and Neanderthal genomes has suggested that some of our immunological genes came from interbreeding with Neanderthals. These genes – known as the Toll like receptor family – are important for our innate immune system, which initially mounts a defensive response to pathogens. The innate immune system is also largely involved in allergic responses. So, thank our predecessors for our ability to respond to infections rapidly, but you can also silently curse them next time your hay fever acts up!

Neanderthals-diginean3

In some slightly stranger insect-related news, to confirm that praying mantises do see in 3D and to create a system to confirm the same in other insects, scientists from the UK and France have created 3D glasses for insects. The glasses are similar to the red-green plastic system that was commonly used in the 80’s and 90’s for movies, but different colours were used. Since insects’ eyes are sensitive to different wavelengths than human eyes, the authors used green and blue plastic lenses instead of the traditional red and blue. While this is a strange set-up for sure, maybe it will help us learn more about insect vision in the near future! The images are pretty cool to look at too…

Newcastle University research into 3D vision in praying mantises by Dr. Vivek Nityananda. Pic: Mike Urwin. 151015

Newcastle University research into 3D vision in praying mantises by Dr. Vivek Nityananda.
Pic: Mike Urwin. 151015

Explaining the evolutionary origins of life is still an active pursuit by biologists, but we now have more insight into how life became multicellular. In order to become a multicellular organism, some form of organisation is required. For this, cells take advantage of some structures involved in cell division, the mitotic spindles. These are fibres which are involved in separating the chromosomes (or DNA) of cells when they replicate and divide. Recent work has helped to explain how this complex system was adapted into a system to help organise multicellular life. A single mutation seems to be responsible, for co-opting this system of cellular organisation into one for organismal organisation. The article is rather technical, but is an excellent example of evolutionary modifications.

Unravelling multicellularity

Scientists have always been interested in the diversity of lifeforms on Earth, and this month a new interesting puzzle was discovered. Often, the same genetic background can result in many different body forms (called phenotypic plasticity), but this worm puts other phenotypically plastic organisms to shame. It produces five different forms from the same genes! The worms are often found in figs, and now we know they have five different physical forms depending on which species of fig they inhabit.

Five in one

Antibiotic resistance is a problem our news digests have covered before, and this issue continues to concern scientists and medical professionals the world over. Nanoparticles are tiny particles which have been considered for use against bacteria previously, but they have some issues: they are not cell selective. So, if you were to treat a patient with specific nanoparticles that can ‘destroy’ foreign cells, they would also destroy their own cells, which is of course not a good way to treat a bacterial infection. Recent work, however, shows promise in designing more specific nanoparticles to specifically target bacterial cells and leave our own healthy cells undamaged. Hopefully nanoparticles can be added to our arsenal against bacterial infections some time soon!

Nanoparticles help target antibiotic resistant bacteria

We all probably know by now that we are host to many organisms apart from ourselves, from beneficial bacteria, to mites in our eyelashes. But maybe you haven’t given much thought to who you share your house with? Well, these scientists were curious about what might be lurking about the average house. They surveyed 50 different houses in California and found a remarkable diversity of Arthropods (the Phylum which includes insects), with up to 200+ species in a single house! But don’t worry, the most abundant arthropods found were all completely harmless.

You're never really home alone...

At school, we all learned that lizards and other reptiles were cold-blooded, that is, they need to absorb heat from their environment as they do not produce their own bodily heat like humans do. But, I guess we also all learned that, at some point in life, that there is always an exception to every rule. Well, we’ve finally found the exception to the cold-blooded lizards. The Tegu lizard, native to South America, has been found to produce some bodily heat in certain seasons. We don’t know how they do this yet, but it has been suggested that they increase the activity of certain organs, like the heart or the liver, to produce extra heat during the breeding season. The more in depth we study nature, the more strange and fascinating it gets!

Warm Blooded Reptiles

Our final news story for the month is potentially very exciting for age-related blindness. Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP) is a gradual blindness that progresses with age, and current treatments only manage to slow the decline in vision. We know which gene is responsible for this condition, but so far, efforts to restore the function of this gene have not been very successful. Some new work making use of CRISPR gene editing technology may provide some hope however. Previous gene therapy efforts have focused on introducing some separate functional copy of the gene in question, but often this replacement copy degrades over time and the therapeutic effects go with it. With CRISPR, we can take out the defective copy of the gene, and replace it with a functional copy which will last longer and prevent disease progression. However, this work has only been done in rats, and CRISPR technology is currently not approved for therapeutic applications in human tissue. Besides that, CRISPR is also embroiled in a copy-right dispute at the moment, so it may be a while before we know if this can be applied in a clinical setting.

CRISPR may help prevent eye degeneration

 

We hope you enjoyed this month’s news round-up, thanks for reading!

Devon Smith, The University of Sheffield, @devoncaira

Julie Blommaert, The University of Innsbruck, @jblommaert92

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News Round-Up December 7th – 13th

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Hello, and welcome to the #bioscinews round-up! This is the place where you can find all the important biosci new stories from the past week, in a short, digestible paragraph.

This week’s news

In a rare find, palaeontologists in Scotland have stumble upon some sauropod footprints. The area where the footprints were found is thought to have been a lagoon in the Middle Jurassic – another dinosaur footprint was found in the area also. This marks the largest discovery of dinosaur footprints in Scotland, and adds to what we already know about Sauropods.

Nessie-

Malaria can be a large problem in certain areas of the world, and it is likely to spread with global warming, so control methods will be vital in the future. Since it is spread by specific mosquitoes, many strategies are aimed at reducing mosquito populations in malaria-prone areas. CRISPR (a new, promising gene-editing technology, and a technology which has been in our news quite a lot recently) has been used for the first time to cause heritable sterility in female mosquitoes. The technique was more than 90% effective, and models indicate that it would be a possible strategy to control wild populations of mosquitoes.

Credit: CDC

Credit: CDC

Turning differentiated cells back into stem cells is possible in some cases, but some problems still remain. It has not been possible to return all cell-types back to the pluripotent stage (a cell capable to turn into any other cell-type), but recent findings about epigenetic mechanisms may pave the way for improvements in this area. A central pathway in chromatin remodelling can be manipulated in order to return more cells to this “ground state”. Hopefully this advance will be useful not only in research, but also in regenerative medicine.

Easier pluripotent stem cells-

We hope you enjoyed this week’s news round-up, thanks for reading!

Devon Smith, The University of Sheffield, @devoncaira

Julie Blommaert, The University of Innsbruck, @jblommaert92

News Round-up November 30th- December 6th

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Hello, and welcome to the #bioscinews round-up! This is the place where you can find all the important biosci new stories from the past week, in a short, digestible paragraph.

This week’s news

Ultrasound imaging is used in many different biological and medical contexts (eg. pregnancy) to image deep into non-transparent tissues. But due to the properties of biological tissues, ultrasound images do not have high resolution. However, French researchers have found a method to improve this resolution in vascular scans. By injecting microbubbles of gas and stacking many thousands of low-quality images, they produced ultrasound images with microscopic resolution of blood vessels and capillaries in rat brains. The small bubbles are good contrast agents in ultrasound, and there is hope that this technique will become useful in clinical settings.

Credit: C. Errico et al

Credit: C. Errico et al

The CRISPR/Cas9 system has recently emerged as an efficient way to edit DNA, but there are some problems with non-specific (i.e. off-target) effects. The system works by creating a “guide-RNA” strand attached to the Cas9 enzyme, which then binds to the target DNA and cuts the DNA double-strand. From this point, it is possible to delete, insert, or change the target region. However, the binding domain of the Cas9 enzyme has a majority positive charge, so occasionally Cas9 will bind to non-specific areas of the genome and cut at these non-specific areas. A team of scientists has developed a new Cas9 protein where many of the positively charged amino acids in the binding domain of Cas9 were exchanged for neutral ones. Hopefully the future of genome editing is even easier thanks to this work!

Improved CRISPR

We hope you enjoyed this week’s news round-up, thanks for reading!

Devon Smith, The University of Sheffield, @devoncaira

Julie Blommaert, The University of Innsbruck, @jblommaert92

News Round-up November 23rd-29th

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Hello, and welcome to the #bioscinews round-up! This is the place where you can find all the important biosci new stories from the past week, in a short, digestible paragraph.

This week’s news

The Tardigrade genome was sequenced and found to contain more foreign genes than any previously sequenced animal genome. Tardigrades are extromophiles, meaning they can survive in conditions that would kill most organisms (they’ve even survived the cold and radiation of space!). It is thought that these wondrous little creatures pick up this foreign DNA when they dessicate (which helps them survive extreme conditions), in a similar way to Bdelloid rotifers. Since Bdelloids also dessicate to survive unideal conditions, there is a possibility that horizontal gene transfer is more common among extremophilic animals than previously thought.

Tardigrades!

A new immunotherapy method may change how Type I Diabetes is treated in the future, and may even help prevent the progression of the disease. Since Type I Diabetes is an autoimmune disease, the new approach targets the regulatory T (T-reg) cells of the immune system. In affected patients, the T-reg cells target the insulin-producing cells of the pancreas and destroy them, meaning that Type I diabetics need to inject insulin daily to combat this lack of insulin production by their bodies. By replacing the T-reg cells in a patient, researchers have prevented diabetic symptoms in early-onset patients and the slowing of the disease progression was also observed. Hopefully, further trials will continue to show promise.

New Diabetes Treatment (1)

 

We hope you enjoyed this week’s news round-up, thanks for reading!

Devon Smith, The University of Sheffield, @devoncaira

Julie Blommaert, The University of Innsbruck, @jblommaert92

News Round-up November 15th-22nd

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Hello, and welcome to the #bioscinews round-up! This is the place where you can find all the important biosci new stories from the past week, in a short, digestible paragraph.

This week’s news

Amphibians around the world have been fighting against fungal infection for years, but a new multi-pronged approach may be the key to getting rid of this disease. Chytrid is a white fungus, which kills amphibians and presents a big problem for frog populations world-wide. In the successful approach to eradicating this infection, scientists disinfected the environment and treated tadpoles of the Mallorcan midwife toad over a period of seven years. Extension of this approach may be crucial for saving frogs in different habitats around the world.

Chytrid

Antibiotic resistance is a huge issue for modern medicine. This week, news emerged that bacteria in China have developed resistance to the final group of antibiotics used when all else fails. This is particularly concerning as these traits are easily transferred between bacteria, meaning we have no more “last line of defence” against bacterial infections. This is a big blow to modern medicine – but all is not lost. Scientists are constantly developing new types of antibiotics and hopefully we can continue bringing these to clinical standards!

Antibiotic Resistance (1)

Animal models are important in studies involving human health, and the zebrafish might be helping to clear up the trade-off between tissue regeneration and cancer. Many animals can regenerate tissues and limbs if they are injured or removed, but this capability is severely limited in humans, with only very mild regeneration possible in very specific cases (e.g. the liver). By introducing a human tumour-suppressor gene into zebrafish, scientists were able to repress the regenerative capabilities of the fish. This supports the idea that humans have reduced their regenerative abilities as a trade-off for being more resistant to cancer development. This information could be useful in the treatment of cancer and in assisting healing and possibly even regeneration of serious injuries.

Credit: T Murakami

Credit: T Murakami

We hope you enjoyed this week’s news round-up, thanks for reading!

Devon Smith, The University of Sheffield, @devoncaira

Julie Blommaert, The University of Innsbruck, @jblommaert92

News Round-up November 8th-14th

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Hello, and welcome to the #bioscinews round-up! This is the place where you can find all the important biosci new stories from the past week, in a short, digestible paragraph.

This week’s news

Farmers living near big cats may not need to worry about loss of livestock, so long as the local ecosystem is balanced. Wild big cats seem to prefer wild animals to farm animals, and will only hunt the latter if food is otherwise in short supply.

Big Cats

Researchers have been trialling the use of antibodies to treat Alzheimer’s in humans, but recent studies in mice question whether this is a feasible treatment. The author’s found that the antibodies break up the amyloid-beta plaques, the protein build-up that causes Alzheimer’s, but the release of this protein can over-stimulate neurons until they die.

Alzheimer's drug causing more harm than good-

Nanoparticles hold some hope for cancer treatments in the future, especially for individually tailored treatments, but these can be difficult and expensive to produce. Algae can be genetically modified to produce nanoparticles, and this can help reduce the production cost for potential future cancer treatments.

Credit: Wikipedia user Wipeter

Credit: Wikipedia user Wipeter

 

We hope you enjoyed this week’s news round-up, thanks for reading!

Devon Smith, The University of Sheffield, @devoncaira

Julie Blommaert, The University of Innsbruck, @jblommaert92

News Round-up November 1st-7th

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Hello, and welcome to the #bioscinews round-up! This is the place where you can find all the important biosci new stories from the past week, in a short, digestible paragraph.

This week’s news

Recently, the a fossil of a Ornithomimus dinosaur was found with preserved skin and feather structures, helping confirm the long-standing theory that some dinosaurs had feathers. The feather and skin patterns also help give insight into how these dinosaurs may have regulated their body temperatures.

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Credit: J Csotonyi

Continuing with the fossil-related news, a new study proposed that limb-regeneration was ubiquitous in the ancestors of modern tetrapods. This means that this ability has likely been lost in most current tetrapod lineages. Keeping this evolutionary information in mind may lead to a better understanding of limb regeneration and why humans are not capable of this.

Limb regeneration

Antibiotic resistance is a problem in modern medicine, and one that threatens to undo all of the progress modern medicine has had regarding infectious disease. There are many different approaches to this problem, but a new approach harnessing currently used antibiotics and antibodies has proved very successful in rats, although it remains to be seen how successful it may be in humans.

Antibiotic Resistance

Credit: NIH/Wikimedia commons

Hope you enjoyed this week’s news round-up, thanks for reading!

Devon Smith, The University of Sheffield, @devoncaira

Julie Blommaert, The University of Innsbruck, @jblommaert92

News Round-up October 19th-25th

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Hello, and welcome to the #bioscinews round-up! This is the place where you can find all the important biosci new stories from the past week, in a short, digestible paragraph.

This week’s news

Ever wondered why cats have vertical pupils? A new publication suggests that animals’ pupil shapes really help them fit into their ecological niche. For example, grazing animals have horizontal pupils to allow them to see around them better, and the most interesting part is that even when they tilt their head, their pupils stay mostly horizontal!

Verticle pupils

New evidence suggests that life may have originated on Earth much earlier than we previously thought. If this is true, then life may develop much easier in the right conditions than we currently believe possible, so this raises questions about the probability of the prescence of life elsewhere in the universe.

Some geneticists from Johns Hopkins University got the chance to test a few things in zero-gravity. It seems that molecular biology is possible in these conditions, with the right equipment. A small sequencing run with a MinION was even completed!

Genetics in space

Hope you enjoyed this week’s news round-up, thanks for reading!

Devon Smith, The University of Sheffield, @devoncaira

Julie Blommaert, The University of Innsbruck, @jblommaert92

News Round-up October 12th-18th

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Hello, and welcome to the #bioscinews round-up! This is the place where you can find all the important biosci new stories from the past week, in a short, digestible paragraph.

This week’s news

The hygiene hypothesis has been around for a while now. In order to develop a well-functioning immune system, children should be exposed to parasites, bacteria and viruses (both harmless and infectious) as they grow up. A recent study has discovered some evidence supporting this idea in mice. When young mice grew up in a sterile environment their gut microflora was less diverse, and their innate immunity (that is, their ability to fight off pathogens) was reduced in comparison to mice who were exposed to unsterile environments while growing up.

Credit: Wikipedia Commons Rama.

It is the belief (and hope) of many scientists that gene therapy will be the ‘gold standard’ of disease treatment. This week, it was announced that the world’s first trial of stem cell therapy will commence in the womb to alter the effects of brittle bone disease. Initial results have shown promise in fixing mutations in the gene required for producing collagen, with patients receiving follow-up boosters for 2 years after birth. Foetus at 20 weeks of age will be injected with stroll cells (connective tissue cells) containing the corrected, normal collagen-producing gene.

Stem Cell Therapy

Credit: New Scientist.

After analysis of many functional MRI images, researchers were able to identify individual participants in a study due to differences in their ‘neuronal fingerprint’. They also discovered that these patterns are associated with cognitive ability.

Neuronal fingerprint

There have been many studies in the past few years about how bad sitting is. Even if you exercise a lot, it is believed that extended periods of sitting can increase the risks of all kinds of (primarily) metabolic diseases. However, a comprehensive cohort study has now found no association between sitting behaviour and these disease outcomes. In health and epidemiology, cohort studies are seen as the gold standard, so it will be interesting to see if any more studies are conducted in this area…

Sitting

Lately, there has been a bit of excitement in the hominid evolution field, and this article just adds to the interesting storybook of our origins. Scientists have presented new evidence of modern humans in China that predates any evidence of Homo sapiens in Europe. This potentially changes the human migration narrative and gives interesting insights into our past.

Credit: Nature.

Credit: Nature.

Gene therapy has long been discussed and explored as an avenue to cure certain diseases. A new paper brings hope to those suffering from glioma, a cancer that targets the protective cells of the nervous system. This paper focuses on using adenoviruses to specifically target glial cells, and to only express the desired gene(s) in those cells. This means these treatment vectors have two strict regulation points to prevent the therapy from wrecking havoc in healthy cells that do not need gene therapy.

Adenoviral therapies

For years scientists have wondered why bowel cancer is so hard to treat. This week it has become clear that bowel cancer is actually four separate cancers, with a mixture of similar genes that have influence on the behaviour of the cancer. With the variance of the genes, however, this has led to resistance towards certain treatments. It is now hoped that with these new findings will lead to the development of more precise and targeted treatments, which can be trialled to help treat bowel cancer.

Credit: Science Photo Library.

Credit: Science Photo Library.

Global climate change will likely result in a decrease in ocean biodiversity. This will impact the food-web, from small marine plankton to humans.

Credit: Julie Blommaert.

Credit: Julie Blommaert.

Who knew that bees also need a morning caffeine buzz? Well they do! Scientists have recently discovered that plants that provide bees with a dose of caffeine actually do it for their own benefit. Instead of delivering caffeine as a reward for spreading their pollen, as was once thought, the caffeine hit actually makes the bees honey production inefficient. Instead of producing honey, the bees go on the hunt for a caffeine fix, going back to the same plant in the hope of more caffeine. Instead they end up spreading more pollen, benefiting only the plant.

That morning buzzzzzz

Hope you enjoyed this week’s news round-up, thanks for reading!

Devon Smith, The University of Sheffield, @devoncaira

Julie Blommaert, The University of Innsbruck, @jblommaert92

News Round-Up October 5th-11th

Bioscience news 1

Hello, and welcome to the #bioscisews round-up! This is the place where you can find all the important biosci new stories from the past week, in a short, digestible paragraph.

This week’s news

Pitcher plants’ ant trap. Until recently, carnivorous plants fell into two classes, active and passive, based on how they ‘receive’ their prey. Venus fly traps are an example of ‘active’ carnivorous plants, while all pitcher plants were thought to be ‘passive’. However a species of pitcher plant has now been classified as a ‘free energy’ species, as it uses the force of raindrops hitting its unique lid, to fling ants into its pitcher for digestion.

ants crawling on a pitcher plant leaf

Image Source

Mammals flourish at Chernobyl. The human exclusion zone around the Chernobyl nuclear reactor is acting as the perfect method of creating a virtually human free nature reserve, and a long-term study has found that mammals appear to be flourishing under these conditions.

Roe deer near Chernobyl nuclear power plant (c) Tatyana Deryabina

Image Source

Decline of the cactus? A global study has concluded that almost one third of cactus species are under threat, due to over harvesting, slow growth and small distribution range.

Carnegiea gigantea (Image: Craig Hilton-Taylor)

Image Source

Hope you enjoyed this week’s news round-up, thanks for reading!

Stewart Barker                                                                                                                   The University of Sheffield                                                                                                     @Stewart_Barker