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.


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!


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


Improving the sex lives of plants… and saving the world!!

Food security is defined as everyone having access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food. This has been a concern for decades, and advances have been made toward reaching this goal. In the 1960s, the ‘Green Revolution’ saw grain production double in some countries thanks to new cultivars. Notably, this included dwarf wheat varieties developed by Norman Borlaug, who has been credited with saving one billion lives.

Once again, in 2015, we face an impending food crisis. Earth’s population has been booming at an unprecedented rate. In 2011, the Day of 7 billion was declared, and by 2050 we expect the Day of 10 billion. This will place a huge strain on agriculture. To have sufficient food, agricultural output needs to increase by approximately 60%. Currently, this output only increases at an average of 1.1% per year. And just to make it worse, climate change will bring a wave of issues all of its own!

So why are we struggling?

GMOs (genetically modified organisms) that can be produced within two years are still not permitted for human consumption in the EU, and so we are still largely reliant on traditional breeding methods. Developing crops this way can take decades. Why? It turns out that plants are not particularly good at recombining their genes; this is why we are interested in plant sex!

Specifically, we’re interested in meiosis: the production of gametes, during which inter-homolog recombination occurs, and genetic diversity is introduced. This shuffling of alleles is what the traditional breeding methods rely on. Yet our main food crops maize, rice, wheat, and barley have biological constraints on where these sites of recombination (crossovers) occur. In barley, for example, only the ends of the chromosomes recombine, leaving the gene-rich interstitial and proximal regions relatively untouched. This limits the genetic variation available to breeders.

We need to learn how to manipulate meiosis; we need to find key players in the recombination process, and work out if changing their role can allow us to harness all of the allelic variation available. The chromosome axis is a key area of current research, as it is proposed that where the axis bends when placed under torsional strain is what designates a crossover site. This is because crossovers cut straight through the chromosome axis in preparation for swapping that section of the chromosome with its homolog, therefore reducing tension in that area.

The questions we ask therefore relate to how we might be able to increase tension along the axis to induce the requirement for more crossovers. Related to this is the question of crossover interference: the phenomenon identified in 1914 that crossovers tend to form far away from each other due to ‘interference’. Can we manipulate how far the interference ‘signal’ spreads, allowing crossovers to form more closely together?

Agriculture is finally paying the price for years of selecting for homogeneity, and what we now require are tools to influence what genes we can introduce into new cultivars.

Plant sex is far more important than you might have thought!


Alice Darbyshire

The University of Birmingham


News Round-up October 12th-18th

Bioscience news 1





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…


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