BioQuakes

AP Biology class blog for discussing current research in Biology

“And Then There Were None.” Not An Agatha Christie Murder Mystery, but an Eye-Opening Story of Extinction

 

A Land Snail

George the Snail

On January 1st, while we were all blissfully celebrating the transition from 2018 to 2019, the last land snail of the species Achatinella apexfluva, which had thrived for many years on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, had gone extinct.

The name of the snail was George. It was given to him by researchers so that he may be remembered and not simply become an extinct species left unknown to most. Researcher Michael Hadfield notes “You anthropomorphize it [i.e. George the snail] and people pay attention.” More importantly, though, is George’s story. He was “…born in the early 2000’s to parents that had been captured in the mountains [by scientists] in an effort to protect them from predators.” Then, there was a sudden mass extinction event. What researchers believe to be some form of a pathogen annihilated the remains of George’s already endangered species. George was the lone survivor of this unfortunate phenomena.

George’s species is not the only one to face extinction on the Hawaiian Islands. “At one point there were more than 750 species of land snails identified…” George’s species, however, was the first. Unfortunately, Dr. Sischo, who directs the state-run Snail Extinction Prevention Program, mentions that estimates say that “more than half of those species are already extinct.” There were other factors, other than the elusive pathogen, that have afflicted the land snails over a much longer period of time: “…invasive predators like rats and wolfsnail, which eats other snials. They also face habitat destruction and the effects of climate change; drier conditions have reduced the inhabitable land on the islands,” Dr. Sischo says.

In 2017, researchers removed a two-millimeter section of his foot and have preserved it in a “deep-freeze container” according to the Department of Land and Natural Resources. “The hope is that someday soon, scientists will develop the technology to clone a snail.”

GOC Bypass… The Future of Food?

For years, scientists have been trying to find ways to avoid the imminent world food shortage crisis. Is there a scientific breakthrough that could help the world get more grain yield in plants and help avoid a worldwide food shortage? These are questions that farmers and scientists around the world have been trying to find the solution to for decades. Professor Xin-Xiang Peng, of South China Agricultural University, and his team believe that they have found the answer, a process they call the GOC Bypass method.

Professor Xin-Xiang Peng and his team conducted thorough research on rice plants, specifically, and tried to find a way to further maximize their grain yields. Peng and his team believe that with the growing population of the world and less useable cultivatable soil, scientists must find a way to maximize grain yield, in order to produce more food. After intensive research, Peng and his partner, Zheng-Hui He, believe that they have found a way to partially bypass a process called photorespiration and reuse the materials used in photorespiration in photosynthesis. This process is called GOC Bypass. Xiang and his team bioengineered the CO2 to be diverted from photorespiration and to instead be used during photosynthesis, causing increased grain yield.

Peng and He discovered that bioengineered rice plants have a 27% greater grain yield than normal rice plants. To achieve this, they converted a molecule called glycolate, which is a product of photorespiration, and converted it to CO2, using three rice enzymes: glycolate oxidase, oxalate oxidase, and catalase (AKA GOC). The CO2 was then diverted to photosynthesis, which was able to, in turn, create a higher grain yield as the photorespiration in the rice plants went down by approximately 25% and the net photosynthetic rate increased by about 15%, due to the higher concentrations of CO2 being able to be used for photosynthesis. Thus, increasing the grain yield in rice plants and harvesting more food from the same crop.

Biologically engineering food has been around for most of the 2000’s, but the GOC Bypass method is a new method that could potentially help combat the need for more food, due to the population growth and the decrease of cultivatable land. Peng and He’s research is promising, but it is still in its early stage. So, only time will tell if the GOC Bypass method will be of any use to mankind in the future and if this process can be used with a variety of different crops.

What do you think? Could the GOC Bypass method help solve the worlds emerging food crisis? Only time will tell.

The research is from Zheng-Hui He, Xin-Xiang Peng’s Engineering a New Chloroplastic Photorespiratory Bypass to Increase Photosynthetic Efficiency and Productivity in Rice, at the South China Agricultural University. The research was published by the Molecular Plant Shanghai Editorial Office in association with Cell Press, an imprint of Elsevier Inc., on behalf of CSPB and IPPE, SIBS, CAS.

 

 

 

A Baby Beetle’s Nursery is.. In a Dead Mouse?!

Two Parent Burying Beetles in a Dead Rodent! Gross!

Typically, death for animals is experienced at the end of one’s life, but this is reversed for a certain species of carrion beetle, Nicrophorus vespilloides or burying beetle, in which infant beetles are born and raised within dead mice carcasses. In this mice carcass, parent beetles frequently tend to the dead animal by soaking it with their own oral and anal secretions, providing the baby beetle with a much needed dark microbial film. This bacterial goo actually closely resembles the parent beetle’s gut microbiomes, allowing for the baby beetle to truly thrive as an offspring of this beetle.

But why give these baby beetles this goo within a dead carcass? What benefit would that ever give to an insect?

In every living thing, there is sphere of personal bacteria that provide much needed life benefits as well as qualities like your own stench. Plus, bacteria can even join together through various forms of cellular communication, making an almost impenetrable microfilm biome for bacteria to live in, as seen in plaque on human teeth. This same function is what helps support infant beetles with necessary nutrients and life benefits by keeping the cadaver fresh and capable of sustaining youngster life. Plus, it even causes dead bodies to smell actually not terrible, but instead more pleasant! Crazy! “What burying beetle parents can do with a small dead animal is remarkable,” says coauthor Shantanu Shukla of the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology in Jena, Germany.  “It looks different. It smells different. It’s completely transformed by the beetles.”

If these insects aren’t exposed to these microbiomes as a child, there could be some serious detrimental effects. As shown by Shukla’s lab work, larvae grown in cadavers that were swept clean of biofilm by Shukla and her colleagues used their food less efficiently and gained less weight (“roughly third less weight per gram than those who had their parents goo”).

But, the parents are not the only ones who manipulate the carcass, which can be seen here. As parent beetles and tended to their goo in the body and guarding their children, the infant beetles also add their own secretions to the dead mouse and also eat away the bacteria as well as the entire mouse body. “What will remain is the tail of the mouse,” Shukla says, “and the skull and a few pieces of skin.”

Isn’t it simply crazy how much bacteria can contribute to the growth of a baby insect as well as its impact on even a dead animal? Comment below about what YOU think about this!

A Good Night’s Rest is More Important than We Thought: Decreased Slow-Wave Sleep Linked with Alzheimer’s Disease

Whether it be a quick nap or a nighttime full of sleep, I love sleep. However, with a busy schedule and tons of commitments, I find myself prioritizing these events over my own rest. How much do these short-term habits affect your long-term health?

It has been noted that poor sleep is a telltale symptom of Alzheimer’s disease. As the disease progresses, people tend to wake up tired and their sleep becomes less refreshing. But, is unclear how and why restless nights are linked to Alzheimer’s disease. However, researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis may have discovered part of the explanation.

Alzheimer’s disease affects approximately 5.7 million Americans, and the brain changes appear slowly and silently. Up to two decades before the characteristic signs of memory loss and confusion appear, amyloid beta protein begins to build up into plaques in the brain. The brain protein tau appear later, then atrophy of the key brain areas next. It is after all of these internal and unnoticeable changes that people start to show unmistakable symptoms of cognitive decline. But, what if there were a way to find the symptoms earlier?

The researchers at Washington University in St. Louis found that older people who have less slow-wave sleep, the deep sleep your body needs to consolidate memories and wake up feeling energized, have higher levels of the brain protein tau. Elevated levels of it has been linked to brain damage and cognitive decline, such as in Alzheimer’s. The relationship between sleep, the tau protein, and Alzheimer’s marks great strides in diagnosing and helping patients with the disease. Brendan Lucey, MD, an assistant professor of neurology and director of the Washington University Sleep Medicine Center believes that “measuring how people sleep may be a noninvasive way to screen for Alzheimer’s disease before or just as people begin to develop problems with memory and thinking.”

Decreased slow-wave sleep and increased production of the tau and amyloid proteins have been linked to Alzheimer’s disease.

The study examined 119 people 60 years of age or older. Researchers monitored the participants’ sleep through a portable EEG monitor that strapped to their foreheads to measure brain waves, as well as a wristwatch-like sensor that tracked body movements. Participants also kept sleep logs, making note of both nighttime sleep and daytime naps. Additionally, researchers measured levels of amyloid beta and tau in the brain and spinal fluid. The results found that decreased slow-wave sleep coincided with higher levels of tau and amyloid. Lucey remarked that “the key is that it wasn’t the total amount of sleep that was linked to tau, it was the slow-wave sleep, which reflects quality of sleep. The people with increased tau pathology were actually sleeping more at night and napping more in the day, but they weren’t getting as good quality sleep.” In fact, daytime napping was significantly associated with high levels of tau.

This newfound information concludes that sleep monitoring may be an easy and affordable way to screen earlier for Alzheimer’s disease. Doctor’s may be able to ask a simple question: “How much do you nap during the day?” to identify people who could benefit from further testing. Overall, this study shows that regardless if you have Alzheimer’s or not, it is important to get enough slow-wave, deep sleep, or else you may reap the consequences later in life.

How Non-Antibiotic Drugs May Affect the Human Microbiome

Scientists at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in Germany tested 1200 medications on 38 types of gut bacteria to see if some non-antibiotic medications still affect bacteria. 835 of these medications were human-cell-targeting, such as anti-inflammatory drugs and antipsychotic compounds. Testing showed that around one-quarter of the drugs tested affected the growth of gut bacteria. The scientists are still unsure if this means that the drugs are harmful. The inhibition of bacterial growth could contribute to the drugs’ side effects, or even be “part of the drugs’ beneficial action.”

The scientists also found a connection between bacteria that weren’t affected by the medications and antibiotic-resistant bacteria, possibly showing a connection between the use of non-antibiotic drugs and the increase in antibiotic resistance, which is a major issue.

Nevertheless, this study advances how we think about medications and their effects on our microbiome, and helps us to understand our own bodies better.

Image result for antibiotics

Antibiotics

Can your bacteria reveal your age?

There are billions of bacteria all in, around, and all over you. They prevent diseases, regulate digestion, and everything in between. Researcher Alex Zhavoronkov and his colleagues at InSilico Medicine in Maryland c study and examine whether their predictions that “microbiomes are aging clocks” were true.

To start their study, Alex and his team gathered 3600 samples of gut bacteria from 1165 healthy individuals from around the world, ranging from three age samples. A third of the participants were aged 20 to 39, another third were aged 40 to 59, and the last third were from people aged 60 to 90. They then used machine learning. This means they trained a computer program on “95 different species of bacteria from 90% of the samples, along with the ages of the people they had come from. Then, they asked the algorithm to predict the ages of the people who provided the remaining 10%”. Their program ended up being successful in that 39 bacteria of the 95 were successful in predicting someone’s age within four years.

When researching the certain biomes, Eubacterium hallii-which is important for intestines and metabolisms-became more abundant with age. They also noticed bacteria like Bacteroides vulgatus decreased with age. Alex and his team predict that the different bacteria found may help in detecting peoples’ age.

If validated, the “microbiome aging clock” they created can have many positive effects. It could be used to compare healthy people with those who have diseases. It can test how fast someone is aging and test if any antibiotics, probiotics, diet, or alcohol affect aging. It could help test new treatments or medicine and see if it would have any effect on the aging process. However, challenges may arise. One may include distinguishing whether the different microbes come from age or come from “markedly different populations”. Researcher Robin Knight states, “ it’s also not known whether changes in the microbiome cause people to age more rapidly, or whether the changes are simply a side effect of aging”. It is not yet guaranteed how the aging-clock machine will turn out but if it ends up being successful, many would consider for it to be life-changing.  

Tiny Devils Take Down Gentle Giants all due to Climate Change!

File:Alce (Alces alces), Potter marsh, Alaska, Estados Unidos, 2017-08-22, DD 139.jpg

A innocent female moose, about to be attacked by an onset of terrible parasite in Northeast Canada.

Winter Ticks, not containing Lyme Disease or other Human-harming diseases, are rising exponentially in population throughout New England and Canada, all due to increasingly warmer and snow-free springs and later winters everywhere. As a result, an unlikely species in this region is being targeted by these tick epizootics, Moose, because ticks search for hosts in the fall and other warmer temperatures and stop once freezing weather and snow befalls the land. Yet, when these conditions occur much later, it gives these ticks more time to feast on peaceful animals, and also giving more time for female ticks to fall off its host and create tons more larvae, not making this issue any better. As these raisin sized parasites latch onto to these large creatures, draining so much blood at a time that they simply are unable to function anymore and weakly fall, succumbing to the environment, other predators, or even more ticks. But it’s not simply a few ticks, no, these moose can carry up to around 90,000 ticks! Because of this, there has been “an unprecedented 70 percent death rate of calves over a three-year period” according to a similar source from the University of New Hampshire. Plus, this problem has gotten so bad that now a threatened species in this region of British Columbia, the boreal Caribou, are being eaten alive as well!” If blood loss from heavy tick loads does not directly kill animals, it can make them susceptible to other health risks, Schwantje adds in the original source. “They have spent so much time scratching and chewing on themselves that they haven’t been feeding, so they are in poor body condition,” she says, even with tremendous hair loss that they become basically unrecognizable.

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An example of one of these detrimental winter ticks, a female engorged in size with blood and larvae, ready to reproduce .

But How Can This Be Stopped?

Currently, researchers are offering a multitude of solutions to help save these wonderful species from these terrifying parasites, as Swantje says that “They have huge cultural and nutritional value to our First Nations, And when moose forage in wetlands, they help release nutrients into the environment and make them available to other plants and organisms, studies have shown”, one solution can even be seen here. One possibility is to continuously treat half of the moose with anti-parasite gel and pills that make attached ticks drop from their bodies in order to isolate specifically what the ticks do and don’t do to harm these moose. The other possibility is a highly unlikely one, hunt the moose. Researcher Peter Pekins suggests that “issuing more moose-hunting permits in strategically selected areas” could essentially starve out the ticks in certain areas, yet it is argued that this would only benefit the environment short term, as the climate will continue to warm leading to the growth of more and more ticks.

Who know, if this isn’t stopped soon, ticks will continue to grow in population and maybe even take down us humans! Save the moose (and the caribou)!

Warming Up This World

      The article,Oceans Are Warming Even Faster Than Previously Thought” by the University of Berkley adds to the ongoing conversation about global warming and our world’s future. This research expands on the idea that scientists must look at ocean temperatures in order to fully understand this phenomenon instead of using data that is susceptible to yearly changes like El Nino. Evidently, it was estimated that ninety-three percent of excess solar energy is in the world’s oceans, thanks to greenhouse gases.

     Models like the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project 5 state that the temperature of the top two thousand meters of the ocean will rise .78 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. Thermal expansion, because of this rise in temperature, will cause sea levels to rise 12 inches without the addition of melting glaciers and ice sheets. In addition, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Fifth Assessment Report accumulated that research models have shown that there has been a faster increase in the excess heat from the oceans. Moreover, around four thousand “diving robots” called Argo have been monitoring many of the oceans conditions like the temperature, pH, salinity as well as other data. Before this exciting new technology, most of the data was collected using a technology called expendable bathythermographs. However, this only collected data on water temperature only once. The updated research techniques use the atmosphere’s oxygen content to determine the speed of global warming while taking into consideration burning fossil fuels, of course. This is because warming oceans release oxygen.

     Overall, I believe the path that global warming scientists are beginning to explore is crucial to understand the necessary changes we must take to take care of planet earth. From this research, it is obvious that actions even as simple as recycling initiatives are crucial to reduce greenhouse gasses and hopefully prove the CMIP5 model and other models wrong by slowing down or even preventing global warming and climate change.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:WhereIsTheHeatOfGlobalWarming.svg

*Sing in Rihanna’s voice* Breath out, Breathe in (mRNA)… American Oxygen!

Researches at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have designed a potentially groundbreaking tool for helping treat lung disease. Their design? One might find the answer rather surprising: inhalable mRNA.

What is mRNA?

Also known as messenger ribonucleic acid, mRNA is a subunit of RNA, and is responsible for carrying the genetic information copied from DNA in the form of a code. More specifically, mRNA is synthesized during transcription. As explained in the article, mRNA, “encodes genetic instructions that stimulate cells to produce specific proteins.” Click here to learn more about mRNA.

The Benefits:

Inhalable mRNA? Yes, you read that correctly. Essentially, patients would inhale the mRNA in an aerosol form. By doing such, the mRNA would come into direct contact with the patient’s lung’s cells, which would then trigger the production of “therapeutic” proteins. As stated in the article, such mRNA molecules, “[turn] the patients’ own cells into drug factories.” If done successfully, mRNA has the potential to treat a myriad of lung-related illnesses, cystic fibrosis among them. Daniel Anderson, an associate professor in MIT’s Department of Chemical Engineering, expresses confidence regarding the findings, stating, “We think the ability to deliver mRNA via inhalation could allow us to treat a range of different disease of the lung.”

Obstacles:

Presently, scientists face the challenge of targeting cells with the mRNA aerosol molecules by using methods which are both safe and efficient. Additionally, scientists are tasked with the challenge of transporting these mRNA molecules in protective carriers, as the body’s natural reaction is to break mRNA down.

The Experiment:

In order to determine the impact of inhalable mRNA, Dr. Daniel Anderson has successfully manipulated a mice’s lung cells to produce a target protein. Dr. Anderson and his lab have begun designing materials which can transport mRNA to organs such as the liver. In particular, he and his lab utilized polyethylenimine (PEI), as it doesn’t break down easily. However, this very aspect of the polymer has the potential to cause side effects. In an effort to avoid these unwanted symptoms, the team moved on to a biodegradable material called “hyperbranched poly”. To test this material, the scientists converted the material into a droplet form, using a nebulizer to deliver the inhalable mist to a group of mice. Twenty four hours later, the team found that the mice were indeed producing the sought-after bioluminescent protein. Moreover, with the decrease in mRNA dosage came the decrease in protein production.

Pictured above is polyethylenimine (PEI), the initial polymer used in Dr. Anderson’s experiment.

The Future of Inhalable mRNA:

Such developments, such as those performed by Dr. Anderson and his team, increase the potential reality of testing on patients. To read the full findings of the aforementioned experiment, click here.

Message Intercepted – Commence attack on bacteria!

Tevenphage – Photo credit to Wikimedia Commons

While experimenting, a group of scientists noticed that a A virus, VP882, was able to intercept and read the chemical messages between the bacteria to determine when was the best time to strike. Cholera bacteria communicate through molecular signals, a phenomenon known as quorum sensing, to check their population number.  The signal in question is called DPO.  VP 882, a subcategory of bacteria’s natural predator, the bacteriophage, waits for the bacteria to multiply and is able to check for the DPO.  Once there is enough bacteria, in the experiment’s case they observed cholera, the virus multiples and consumes the bacteria like an all-you-can-eat buffet. The scientists tested this by introducing DPO to a mixture of the virus and bacteria not producing DPO and found that that the bacteria was in fact being killed.

The great part about VP 882 is it’s shared characteristic with a plasmid, a ring of DNA that floats around the cell. This makes it easier to possibly genetically engineer the virus so that it will consume other types of bacteria. This entails it can be genetically altered to defeat other harmful bacterial infections, such as salmonella.

Ti plasmid – Photo credit to Wikimedia Commons

Current phage therapy is flawed because phages can only target a single type of bacteria, but infections can contain several types of different bacteria.  Patients then need a “cocktail” with a variety of phages, which is a difficult due to the amount of needed testing in order to get approved for usage.  With the engineering capability of using a single type of bacteria killer and the ability to turn it to kill bacteria, phage therapy might be able to advance leaps and bounds.

As humans’ storage of effective antibiotics depletes, time is ticking to find new ways to fight bacterial infections.  Are bacteriophages and bacteria-killing viruses like VP 882, the answers?

The Answer, My Friend, is … in Llama Poop?

New research recently published in the Journal of Archaeological Science reveals a key—albeit seemingly unlikely—indicator for the health of the Inca Empire: llama droppings. Led by paleoecologist Alex Chepstow-Lusty of the University of Sussex, a group of researchers has been able to accurately track the rise and fall of the Incan Empire by examining the oribatid mite population in Marcacocha, tiny spider relatives that once gorged on the feces of llamas passing through the region. Now a dried-up wetland in the mountains, Marcachoca was a small lake over 200 years ago, and a popular rest stop for Incan llama caravans on their way to and from the ancient city of Ollantaytambo. Thousands of llamas carrying trade goods like maize, salt, feathers, and coca leaves would descend upon Lake Marcacocha, where they would water themselves, drink, and defecate along the edges of the pool. Washed into the lake, their dung was then consumed by the resident, half-millimeter long mites. When the mites died, they sank into the lake mud, preserving their corpses  and allowing Alex Chepstow-Lusty to discover them in a sediment core centuries later. Of course, the more llamas that passed through Marcacocha, the more poop the mites had to eat and thus the larger their populations could grow. Conversely, a decline in the llama population would correspond to a decline in the mite population.

After counting the number of mites in each layer of the core, Chepstow-Lusty found that their population skyrocketed when the Incan Empire dominated the Andes from 1438 C.E. to 1533 C.E.—the “golden age” of the Incan Empire. Francisco Pizzaro’s conquest of the empire, however, initiated a massive die-off of Indigenous people and their animals alike, and, as a result, the number of mites took a nosedive. The mite population rose again once Old World animals such as cows, pigs, and horses were brought to the area, but ultimately began to decline again around 1720, when a smallpox epidemic decimated the region.

File:Machu Picchu 25.jpgLlama overlooking Machu Picchu, the most familiar icon of Inca civilization

Surprisingly, the researchers’ investigation of a second poop-eating microorganism, a genus of fungus called Sporormiella, contradicted the results offered by both the mite analysis and the historical record. Since Sporormiella live on herbivores and often reveal insights on the extinctions of large plant-eater populations, scientists often use Sporormiella spore counts to estimate the historical populations of big herbivores. However, the new study demonstrates that other factors can affect fungus populations in different environments, so relying solely on Sporormiella counts can give a misleading picture of population sizes. In the context of Marcacocha, Sporormiella counts responded to fluctuations in the lake’s water level, but didn’t correlate well with the chronology of the Inca Empire. “The spores may be saying more about the environmental conditions of the lake at that time,” according to Chepstow-Lusty, “rather than about the herbivores that may have been living around it.” Ultimately, moving forward, the researchers plan to conduct similar mite studies in Peru and other global locales to see if the technique holds its reliability. If proven reliable, the technique could be a powerful tool for uncovering the fate of other lost civilizations. 

A Link between Schizophrenia and the Epstein-Barr Virus

Schizophrenia  is a chronic and severe mental disorder that affects how a person thinks, feels, and behaves. People with schizophrenia may seem like they have lost touch with reality.

New research from Johns Hopkins Medicine and Sheppard Pratt Health System shows that people in the study with schizophrenia also have higher levels of antibodies against  mono.

Researchers proposed two explanations for the association. The first one is that  schizophrenia might alter the immune systems of these patients and make them more susceptible to mono. On the other hand, having mono might increase the risk of Schizophrenia

Even though the intention of this study wasn’t to determine cause and effect, Robert Yolken wanted to see the relationship between the two since in some cases, mono spreads to the CNS and causes persistent infection.

The results were that people with schizophrenia were 1.7 to 2.3 times more likely to have increased levels of some EBV antibodies compared with people without schizophrenia. What is interesting is that the antibody count did not increase with viruses like chicken pox or herpes. Only mono was associated.

After that, the researchers sequenced a portion of the participants’ DNA to determine their genetic risk for schizophrenia. It turns out if there is increased genetic risk and increased antibody levels for mono, they are 8 times as likely to have schizophrenia compared to the average person.

Thus, Yolken believes the “treatment of Epstein-Barr virus might represent an approach for the prevention… of… schizophrenia.”

Personally, I believe that mono is a factor in increasing the risk of getting schizophrenia since these correlational studies had a statistically significant result.

 

How The gut affects mental health

 

Image result for the gut microbiome

The article, Gut microbiota’s effect on mental health: The gut-brain axis, touches upon the way in which the gut microbiome is connected to your central nervous system and how they affect each other. It explains how the vagus nerve and afferent fibers connect your gut to your brain and helps control your mood by indirectly affecting the amount of Serotonin in your brain. An unhealthy microbiome or dysbiosis is correlated with a large number mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. It also mentions that the gut microbiome may also be able to affect your immune and endocrine system as well the central nervous system. The article concludes that the improvement of peoples gut microbiota may serve as an effective treatment for those with a number of mental disorders through the means of probiotics. The article Feeling Meh? This is How Your Gut Affects Your Mood(Plus, Exactly How to Fix It)  goes through an example of a man who dealt with serious depression and had tried antidepressants and felt only more unhappy while on them. He decided to change his diet instead to one high in vegetables and fiber as well as healthy amounts of protein and fat. The man felt he had more energy, he felt much less anxious and depressed and even felt he gained a much stronger sense of empathy which improved his relationships only furthering his happiness. Do you want to be Happier? Healthier?  Have a stronger immune system? Well then you better eat your probiotics and prebiotics. If you want to do some more research yourself check out this article: Article 2

Can Science Explain Love?

Sometimes it’s the greatest feeling in the world. Sometimes it hurts. Although we may never derive a fundamental recipe for it, much of love can be explained by chemistry and biology.

The brain (not the heart!) is responsible for romantic love, which, according to Dr. Helen Fisher at Rutgers University and Katherine Wu at Harvard University, can be broken down into three categories: lust, attraction, and attachment.

Credit: “Hearts” by eflon on Flickr.

Lust is our yearning for “sexual gratification.” This facet of love is grounded in our evolutionary, inherent need to reproduce. Lust is stimulated when the hypothalamus releases “sex hormones (testosterone and estrogen) from the testes and ovaries.”

Whereas lust concerns merely “sexual gratification,” another aspect of love, attraction, encompasses a variety of emotions with regard to a specific person. Attraction leads to the release of the chemicals dopamine and norepinephrine. As anyone whose ever been attracted knows, these chemicals make us “giddy, energetic, and euphoric.” Attraction also stimulates the brain’s reward center, which fires “like crazy when people are shown a photo of someone they are intensely attracted to.” Another hormone, serotonin, is found in low levels in both people with obsessive-compulsive disorder and people those who are experiencing attraction. As a result, scientists have theorized that attraction, and the ensuing low level of serotonin, is responsible for the obsessive infatuation so common in love.

The third aspect of love, attachment, is responsible for intimacy, is a key factor in long-term relationships, and is, of course, mediated by hormones.  The two hormones responsible for attachment, oxytocin and vasopressin, “are found in large quantities during sex, breastfeeding and childbirth,” all activities that are “precursors to bonding.” From this, it is easier to understand the concept of three different aspects of love: the “love” parents feel towards their children is merely the attachment aspect of it, but neither the lust nor the attraction aspect.

Although science can give us a biological basis for it, love, and all of its intricacies, can never be fully explained.

Eat Your Veggies!

 

An extraordinary research team from The Francis Crick Institute has discovered, from their new study, that chemicals produced by vegetables — kale, broccoli, cabbage, etc. — could help in maintaining a healthy gut and in preventing colon cancer.

The new study was tested on mice, and the goal was to see whether or not vegetables had an effect on maintaining a healthy gut. Spoiler alert, the new study was fairly successful for the mice!

To do this experiment, the research teams used genetically modified mice that could neither produce or activate aryl hydrocarbon receptor (AhR), a protein, in their guts. These mice were either put in a purified control diet — a diet that contains the exact mixtures of carbohydrates, proteins, fats, and fibers enriched with vitamins and minerals — or on the standard diet/I3C-enriched food. I3C is essential to the body because it can prevent colon inflammation and cancer by activating AhR.

Once the study was completed, the researchers found that AhR is vital for repairing damaged epithelial cells; “Without AhR, intestinal stem cells fail to differentiate into specialized epithelial cells that absorb nutrients or generate protective mucus. Instead, they divide uncontrollably which can ultimately lead to colon cancer.” Ultimately, the standard diet/I3C-enriched food, or in other words, a vegetable-rich diet, is the better diet since it helps with our intestines.

Overall, with this new and encouraging discovery, the research team is planning to do further experiments in organoids made from human gut biopsies and then eventually do human trials. Although we have made a discovery simply for mice, this discovery is very helpful and leads us to a good path to cure cancer.

Virus VP882: Our Forgotten Spy to End our Bacteria Problem

The virus VP882, which had long ago sequenced in Taiwan as a part of a study of an outbreak of cholera, has now resurfaced and has the potential to make major waves in our addressing of the harmful bacteria. In recent years, biomagnification of harmful bacteria, in large part due to human waste, like Escherichia Coli and Vibrio Cholerae are having immediate and detrimental effects on our environment and in human health as well. For example, a significant amount of produce circulating in the United States has been contaminated with Escherichia Coli causing many to contract Shiga toxin-prducing E. coli infection (STEC) which, as according to the Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention (CDC), can causes “severe stomach cramps, diarrhea (often bloody), and vomiting”.

Our problem today is that the production of bacteria-specific responses to infection are difficult to produce and become costly as a result. Most of our anti-bacterials today target bacteria-made toxins, in order to restore affected G-Protein cell signaling function. Unfortunately, this treatment may negatively impact the integral human microbiome. An alternative way of countering bacterial infections is through use of phage therapy. This treatment is much more specific, bringing less harm to the host organism, and involves viruses to enter and reproduce in bacterial cells, eventually causing them to lyse, thus killing them. While objectively this process seems far superior than the current general treatment, too often the infective bacteria remains unknown, which as M.I.T. Professor Mark Mimee discusses in the Scientific American article on the VP882 virus, forces doctors to prescribe “a cocktails of different phages. But manufacturing cocktails and adhering to drug regulations is too expensive.” Then enters the VP882 virus.

The VP882 virus works just as most other bacteriophages: the virus uses bacteria as hosts for their reproduction, and cause them bacteria cells to lyse, after they have hijacked a given bacterium’s reproductive mechanisms. There are two things, though which make this virus special in the realm of bacteriophages. VP882 has the ability to sense bacterial cell communication and is a very simple structure, similar to a plasmid. This virus’s discovery can in part be credited to a coincidence. A student at Princeton, Justin Silpe, in his study of a molecule, DPO, which is integral in bacteria cell signaling, specifically quorum sensing, ran across this surprising virus which was sequenced in the presence of DPO. What he and his professor, Bonnie Bassler, found is that this virus, which was attacking cholera cells, was able to secretly calculate the optimal time to invade the bacteria (thus its many comparisons to a spy), by sensing a high quantity of DPO, which is a signal for when bacteria can begin their collective behavior, and possibly start a disease. What this means is that because of this ability to understand a bacteria’s quorum, they can most effectively counteract an infection.

In addition, upon further study, VP882 was found to be a very simple structure. This arguably the most important aspect of VP882. The virus is very similar to a plasmid, which can be easily modified and, thus accepted by a plethora of bacteria. This leads scientists like Bassler and Silpe to believe that VP882 can be modified to create an all-encompassing bacteriophage treatment, one which could be made cheaply and work far more effectively than general anti-bacterial treatments. Whether this is feasible still remains unknown, but in the time being, VP882 can be readily applied to neutralizing cholera in industrial wastewater without harming the natural microbiome, proving already the usefulness of this discovery.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Discharge_pipe.jpg

Discharge Tube Releasing Cholera-filled Wastewater

 

 

Plants Have Memory!

Did you know that flowering plants can remember changes in their environment? I sure didn’t!

Flowering plants use their memory to remember the temperature of a cold winter. By doing so, plants ensure that they will only flower during the warmer temperatures of spring or summer.

The way plants do this is through a group of proteins called polycomb repressive complex 2 (PRC2). In cold temperatures, the proteins come together as a complex and switch the plant into flowering mode. However little is known about how PRC2 senses the temperature changes in the environment.

But according to an article on Science News, a team of researchers from the Universities of Birmingham and Nottingham lead by Dr. Daniel Gibbs discovered a mechanism in angiosperms that enable them to sense and remember changes in the environment so they can adapt to the varying conditions around them, especially during the changing of seasons. The researchers discovered that the protein Vernalization 2 (VRN2), the core of the PRC2, is very unstable.

Why is this important? Since VRN2 is unstable, it can be greatly affected by the level of oxygen in the environment. In warmer months, the plant is already a flower, so it does not need to continue the flowering process. The abundance of oxygen causes VRN2 to break down. Conversely, when there is a lower level of oxygen in the colder months, VRN2 becomes more stable, causing the proteins of PRC2 to come together and switch the plant into flowering mode. As Dr. Gibbs says, “In this way, VRN2 directly senses and responds to signals from the environment, and the PRC2 remains inactive until required.”

By sensing and remembering the changes in their environment, plants can control their life cycle. I find it so interesting that plants have this capability. Plants that are able to adapt to our world’s ever-changing climate will be more successful in surviving.

Your DNA Will Determine Your Coffee or Tea Addiction

The perception of taste varies according to the genetic makeup of different individuals. In fact, these taste genetics can determine whether a person will prefer coffee or tea.

What does this mean?

There is a version of a gene that increases sensitivity to the bitter taste of caffeine. Those with this gene tend to be coffee drinkers, as they are able to detect caffeine’s bitterness. Research was conducted to connect DNA gene variants to the recognition of bitter taste of chemicals, caffeine, quinine, and propylthiouracil, testing different people’s DNA from around the world. Analysts then calculated each person’s variants in the taste genes, creating a genetic score for how intensely the person tastes each of the bitter chemicals. Researchers connected these statistical analytics to said people’s lifestyle in relation to the beverages of their choice: coffee or tea.

It was determined that people who had the highest genetic score for detecting caffeine’s bitterness were 20 percent more likely to drink a lot of coffee, while those without or less of the increased sensitivity gene were stated to be tea drinkers.

Why is this important?

Prior to this research discovery, it was thought that people with “increased sensitivity” to bitter tastes would tend to avoid bitter foods or drinks. However the choice of drinking coffee or tea may not only result from this gene sensitivity. The study coauthor, Marilyn Cornelis, a nutritional and genetic epidemiologist at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, says “coffee drinkers may have learned to enjoy caffeine’s bitterness because it’s a sign of the buzz the chemical provides. But tea drinkers may not actually like the bitterness of propylthiouracil and quinine.” This means that tea drinkers may exist only as a result of the rejection of coffee, as caffeinated tea still gives the consumer a slight “buzz.” Although the role of bitter taste genes on whether a person is a coffee or tea drinker is still not completely certain, researchers have made strides with this last test report, as it is now known that taste genes are somewhat linked to coffee and tea consumption.

As an avid coffee drinker myself, I believe it is possible that I possess these taste genes. My dad, and his mom (my grandma) both are heavy coffee drinkers, so I think I can now say, “it is in my DNA to be addicted to coffee.”

Programming protein pairs

Researchers from the University of Washington’s Institute of Protein Design have created a new method to engineer protein dimers, or pairs. Working alongside molecular biologists at Ohio State, the researchers have made it possible “to design proteins so they come together exactly how you want them to,” as the paper’s lead author explains.

Two proteins held together by DNA.

Before, researchers relied on DNA to engineer dimeric proteins, utilizing complementary strands to create helical proteins held together by the hydrogen bonds between base pairs. However, DNA-created proteins lack the functionality of highly active proteins like protease, while also being prone to interference during synthesis. So, longing to create these more complex protein assemblies, the researchers engineered a new way to make them.

 

Using a computer program called Rosetta, the researchers designed hydrogen bond networks for their desired protein complexes, creating complementary bond networks for each pair of amino acids. For this, Rosetta algorithmically determined the ideal shape of each amino acid chain, calculating the best way to balance out intermolecular forces and finding the resulting lowest energy level, the most probable state for each chain. Thus, the researchers could accurately design complementary protein structures, so the two parts would fit together exactly.

As a result, the researchers were able to create highly specific, more active protein dimers that form double helices unencumbered by DNA and do not form unwanted shapes or interfere with other proteins during synthesis.

This new method has the potential to “transform biomedical technology”, as scientists can now have much more control over protein interactions, potentially engineering bacteria to produce energy or designing protein machines to diagnose diseases, among many other tasks. As the researchers set their sights on more complicated, dynamic protein complexes, there is no telling what exciting discoveries await.

CRISPR Scandal

Outrage is widespread in the scientific community, as one man’s choices may have ruined genome editing for everyone. With others calling his actions “premature,” “ethically problematic,” and “monstrous” Doctor He Jiankui remains confident in his File:He Jiankui at Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing.jpgactions. His action being creating the first genetically modified babies, twin girls born in November. “He had altered a gene in the embryos, before having them implanted in the mother’s womb, with the goal of making the babies resistant to infection with H.I.V..”

The chaos created by Dr. He’s actions are due to the fact that he failed to receive permission from an ethical board. He claims to have gotten the permission of the hospital, Shenzhen Harmonicare, but the hospital denies being involved. The hospital is even going as far as requesting a police investigation into the “fraudulent ethical review materials.” So without ethical approval, Dr. He seriously violated not only the Chinese government’s laws and regulations created by the Chinese Society for Cell Biology but also academic ethics and norms. He has risked opening the door to designer babies editing everything from eye color to I.Q and physical ability, while the CRISPR creators are attempting to limit the editing to cases of desperate unmet need where the cause cannot be prevented in any other way, unlike H.I.V. which is very easily avoidable in infants.

These twins, however, are the only known set of children to be produced from a trial of seven couples with an H.I.V. positive father and negative mother. Dr. He after deactivating the perfectly normal gene CCR₅ withFile:NHGRI-97218.jpg CRISPR-Cas9  implanted the embryos into their mothers. In deactivating the CCR₅, Dr. He made the girl’s resistant to H.I.V., but also made them more susceptible to West Nile virus and Japanese encephalitis. So while the babies were “born normally and healthy” according to Dr. He, Dr.Kiran Musunuru from the University of Pennsylvania said there was evidence of mosaicism in both twins embryos and Lulu’s placenta was also mosaic. Despite the mosaic placenta, both babies appear to be progressing well for now, but what will happen to them in the future is the unknown. While their health is positive for now, the effects will be felt in their progeny for generations to come in unknown ways as cells with CCR₅ and without are mixed.

With the unknown effects on future children, a lack of shared experimental notes/reports and ethical precautions, and a plea via youtube Dr. He only 34 years old is being shunned in the science community just days before his presentation at the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing in Hong Kong.

AminoKassid

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