AP Biology class blog for discussing current research in Biology

Author: dannimal

Pneumonia Outbreak in China: What You Should Know.

Weeks before the starting of 2020, a mysterious case of pneumonia seemingly caused by a contagious virus broke in Wuhan, China. The outbreak occurred in a local fish market which sold the meat of various exotic animals. The fascinating thing about this strange case is that scientists were unable to link it to previously known about pathogens such as SARS, MERS, or influenza. The true culprit of the spreading infection remained a mystery until scientists were able to analyze the genetic code of what they believed was the virus causing the panic.

A New Coronavirus

On January 10th the DNA Genome of the virus was recorded and scientists were finally able to identify the virus as a pathogen known as a “coronavirus“. Coronaviruses are fairly common and spread all types of illnesses from the common cold to severe acute respiratory syndrome or SARS. China and the world at large have actually gotten pretty familiar with handling these types of diseases as a global outbreak of SARS that originated in China occurred in 2003, barely a decade before the emergence of this new coronavirus. Thanks to this SARS outbreak, which infected 8,000 people and killed nearly 800, China has since had a very cautionary culture when it comes to medical issues. It is not uncommon to see people wearing medical masks regularly in public in order to prevent contamination in the highly populated areas of China. One can assume that this culture in China has helped with the current outbreak’s speedy treatment.

Effects and Outcomes

As a result of the spreading of the virus in the seafood supermarket, 59 patients were brought to the hospital, seven of which were in critical condition. It is known that coronaviruses all come from animal to human transmission so it is no surprise that the virus would appear so rapidly in an area where many humans interact with many animals. Since the outbreak, this market has been closed as of January 1st to few’s surprise. However, it is sad to say that the virus has claimed the life of a 61 year old man how seemingly was weak from many other ailments from his old age. While the newfound coronavirus has been proven to be deadly, many medical professionals and The WHO (World Health Organization) say there should be no cause for great concern as the outbreak has seemingly been contained since late December and there are no true prospects of it becoming a world like epidemic like SARS in 2003. Nonetheless, this recent case of pathological disease spreading serves as a reminder of the deadly forces we must all be careful of every day.

Human Microbiome and Age: A Complex Balancing Act


Dozens of studies in the past few years have been dedicated into research on the bacterial microbiome that lives inside of every human being. The cultivation of the microorganisms that live symbiotically inside of us begins as soon as a baby comes out of the womb and is exposed to the world outside of its mother’s uterus. These bacteria are imperative to many, many bodily functions throughout our lives. The link between us and our microbiome is so crucial that a faulty microbiome can easily cause death. An example of how these bacteria are so important is the fact that many molecules we use daily are mainly created by symbiotic bacteria such as Vitamin B and Vitamin K, 75% of which is supplied symbiotically.


The Link Between our Gut and Age

There is a lot of research left for scientists to discover the effects of our microbiomes but one of the most hotly studied aspects of the bacteria that inhabit our gut is their relationship to our age. There is much research showing how our specific colony of bacteria changes over time. One study by Alex Zhavoronkov shows that the specific type of bacteria present at various stages of development stays consist across different people. So consistent in fact that he was able to have a computer teach itself how to predict the age of a subject within 4 years of accuracy based on their microbiome. He noted that of the 95 bacteria he studied, 39 were crucial in determining the age of a subject. This research seems to suggest that the bacteria in our stomach could serve as an accurate biological clock which could be used to analyze the effects of various things such as alcohol consumption, diet and disease have on a persons longevity. The main issue with his study though is that his subjects all represent a sliver of the human population and due to bacteria’s great biodiversity, predicting ages across the globe could be impossible. Yet in any case, the link between our microbiome and our age is certainly a huge possibility.

Can Bacteria Reverse Aging?

No. Bacteria cannot reverse the aging process unfortunately. We simply do not have   enough research and understanding of the link between age and the microbiome inside the human body enough to make such a grand statement. However, one study seems to suggest a chance in this strange idea. In this unorthodox study, the microbiome of young Turquoise Kill Fish was added to the microbiomes of older fish of the same species. The results are surprising. The older fish ended up living lives 37% longer than their unaffected counterparts. The reasons are unclear yet the evidence is stark. Could this mean we could put young bacteria into humans and continue to stretch our lifespans to be longer than 100 years? Again, we do not know but only the future will tell what will happen.

And The Nobel Prize in Medicine Goes To…

On October 7th, it was announced that the Nobel Prize in Medicine would be awarded jointly to scientists William G. Kaelin Jr., Sir Peter J. Ratcliffe and Gregg L. Semenza for their contributions in the discovery of how cells detect and react to the levels of oxygen in their environments. Each contributor will be receiving 1/3 of the prize share for their work in this topic.

The “Textbook Discovery”

Before we are able to understand the gravity of the discovery being awarded one of the world’s most prestigious scientific prizes, let’s set up some essential vocabulary we will need to break this concept down. Firstly, HIF-1α is the main protein that has been found to be essential to the identification of Oxygen. We have known that there exists an EPO gene which encodes for a steroid known to increase levels of Oxygen but the discovery of the HIF-1α protein is what is so astounding. What this protein does is regulate the activity of the EPO gene. Another factor which plays a large role in this discovery is the VHL gene, a gene known to be responsible for preventing occurrences of cancer. It was discovered that VHL had a link to the regulation of oxygen when low levels of the gene were linked to low level of oxygen (hypoxia). However, as more VHL was reintroduced, oxygen

levels were restored to normal.

How do HIF-1α proteins, VHL genes and EPO genes come together to create an understanding for how cells react to oxygen variation? Well, for HIF-1α to degrade, a peptide known as ubiquitin must link onto the HIF-1α and begin proteasomal degradation. It just so happens to be that VHL codes for a complex which tags proteins with ubiquitin allowing them to degrade. Finally, it was discovered that Oxygen was what binded theses two together, moving ubiquitin from the VHL over to the HIF-1α protein, thus degrading it. In other words, the more oxygen there is present, the more HIF-1α which gets degraded. Finally, the mechanism by which oxygen levels are controlled has been uncovered.

The Men Behind The Discovery

Over the span of 2 decades of research, three scientists were able to form an understanding on how our bodies respond to one of the most essential molecules in biology.

William G. Kaelin Jr. is a professor of medicine at at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Brigham & Women’s Hospital Harvard Medical School. As a cancer researcher, Kaelin’s main contribution was in the creation of a full understanding of the VHL disease which allowed for the link between VHL and HIF-1α to be formed.

Sir Peter J. Ratcliffe is the director of clinical research at the Francis Crick Institute in London. Ratcliffe and his team’s main contribution was establishing the connection between VHL and HIF-1α.

Gregg L. Semenza is a professor in genetic medicine at John Hopkins. His work focused on the EPO gene and how it controlled oxygen levels. He found out how oxygen is regulated, leaving only the cause a mystery.

For even more information on the scientists responsible, look into this New York Times article about them.

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