AP Biology class blog for discussing current research in Biology

Author: jaynetics

Cocaine Addiction is Curable

University of Chicago researchers have made groundbreaking discoveries in the CRISPR field. Following malaria resistant mosquitoes and heat resistant cows, we are well on our way to creating cocaine-resistant mice. Scientists Xiaoyang Wu and Ming Xu teamed up to create a piece of technology that utilized the human body’s natural ability to break down cocaine, using an enzyme called butyrylcholinesterase, or “BCHE”.

After learning of BCHE, one may wonder, “why do people get addicted to cocaine if the human body makes an enzyme specifically to break it down?” In reality, “its short half-life makes it ineffective in a clinical scenario, since it disappears before it has any long-term impact on the body’s response to cocaine.” Researchers Wu and Xu had to find a way to prolong its life span to allow it time enough to work, as well as increase its potency to combat the severe nature of addiction. The scientists used epidermal stem cells in the mice, and using CRISPR technology, converted them into “BChE-producing factories.” The BCHE is easily distributed into the blood through the skin cells, and resulted in the inhibition of the mice’s withdrawal symptoms, and even preventing death in the case of lethal doses.

Not only did the stem cells work, but the mice responded well- producing high levels of BCHE for over two months without a negative immune system reaction.

“Apparently, the enzyme broke down the drug before much, if any, of it could reach their brains.”

A graph of showing the rapid increase of cocaine-caused deaths in the USA from 2002-2017.

The idea of cocaine-resistant mice may seem oddly specific, but cocaine addiction is a serious problem that we as Americans face. According to Ray Donovan, the special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) New York Division, “cocaine is making a comeback in New York,”. It is a problem that we as Americans, and especially New Yorkers, will likely come into contact with some way or another. It doesn’t have to stop with one drug. While BCHE is unique to cocaine decomposition, there may be other enzymes that can similarly be implemented. The danger is this; if cocaine (or other drug) addiction is easily curable, who is to stop anyone from using it? Hopefully, the general public will have seen the aftereffects of cocaine addiction, and not use this new technology to excuse bad choices because they deem it less dangerous than before.

It’s Time to Pay Attention to the Reef

You’ve heard time and time again about how coral reefs are dying, little by little- and that’s because it’s true. We can and should stop it; if we don’t, we risk everything we’ve ever known.

A healthy coral reef at Palmyra Atoll National Wildlife Refuge.

The warming of the oceans is caused by a number of things, almost all of them placing humans at fault. These elements include fossil fuel use, deforestation, and cement production. The creation of greenhouse gases warms the Earth itself, so far by almost 33º F since 1880. This includes the warming of the oceans. Melting glaciers (because of ocean warmth) increase sea levels and can even lead to more powerful and dangerous storms. The increase in CO2 in the water causes ocean acidification as well.

The warming of the oceans is caused by a number of things, almost all of them placing humans at fault. These elements include fossil fuel use, deforestation, and cement production. The creation of greenhouse gases warms the Earth itself, so far by almost 33º F since 1880. This includes the warming of the oceans. Melting glaciers (because of ocean warmth) increase sea levels and can even lead to more powerful and dangerous storms. The increase in CO2 in the water causes ocean acidification as well.

The ocean warming directly affects coral reefs through their symbiotic relationship with algae. The algae lives within the coral polyps, photosynthesizing and sharing energy with the coral. The easy access to sunlight coral provides is important to the algae. However, when the water gets too warm and too acidic, the algae gets expelled from the polyps. The coral then loses color as their skeletons, which cannot endure ecological changes, are exposed. This is coral bleaching.

Bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.

The coral bleaching is a direct result of our rapid consumption of resources and production of greenhouse gases. A simple, small cutback on this consumption could solve so many of the earth’s growing problems. Turn off the lights. Use less water. Eat less red meat. Walk or bike instead of drive, just once a week. Small changes that affect the entire planet. The reefs are not only food for marine life, but they protect coastlines from flood/storm damage and provide employment for thousands. It doesn’t just affect wildlife. It directly affects a human’s quality of life. If you don’t do it for the environment, do it for the people.

Does Immigration Alter the Microbiome?

Each human has our own microbiome; one that is unique to us. However, recent research has shown that the microbiome of someone’s body is not static, but highly subject to alteration. Microbiomes change depending on the atmosphere you are in- and they change very quickly, taking only nine months in the U.S. The University of Minnesota has found that, in people emigrating to the US, microbiomes “rapidly westernize”; aka, their native microbes are replaced with new ones. However, this shift in microbes is not equal- there aren’t enough new microbes to replace the old, resulting in a harsh decline in diversity; diversity that stimulates metabolism, digestion, and immune system development.

Dan Knights, a computational microbiologist at the University of Minnesota, states that in moving to another country, you pick up new microbes native to that country, and new disease risks as well. In this case, the shift in the microbiome makeup can be beneficial, as the new microbes may aid in defense against new disease. However, it has also been found that “Obesity rates among many of the study immigrants increased sixfold. Those who became obese also lost an additional 10 percent of their diversity.” This fact links diet shifts to microbiome shifts, yet Knights states that “diet alone wasn’t enough to explain the rapid Westernization of the microbiome,” and that other things such as water and antibiotic use factor in as well. However, diet is still an important part in microbiome health and diversity. Knights studied microbiota of Hmong and Karen women who had immigrated to the U.S., these immigrants’ American-born children, and white American controls. Their microbiomes shifted to Prevotella to Bacteroides, coming to resemble those of the white Americans who acted as the control. The immigrants’ children were even more susceptible to changes in and loss of microbial diversity.

Obesity statistics worldwide from the years 1996-2003.

We as Americans are highly aware of our obesity epidemic and are doing all we can to find a way to fix it. Research that links it to a cause relieves people- it provides hope that there is a way to change it. Knights remarks that “we do see that Westernization of the microbiome is associated with obesity in immigrants, so this could an interesting avenue for future research into treatment of obesity, both in immigrants and potentially in the broader population.” However, it cannot be used as an excuse for our problem as Americans- it is simply a breakthrough in a long journey that may help us in the long run.

Diversity in Forests Will Save the Earth

Global warming is a fast approaching problem that the human race cannot ignore. It is caused by a number of factors, including the overuse of fossil fuels and farming. These things release the greenhouse gases that warm the atmosphere and contribute to the overall problem. As humans, we are in no rush to stop doing these things, as they provide transportation and food. However, there is one more factor that is more easily controlled than the former; deforestation. Deforestation actually affects the environment differently than burning fossil fuels and farming in that it doesn’t produce more greenhouse gases- it strips the earth of it’s ability to metabolize gases-namely, CO2-into oxygen. The solution easy; just plant more trees, right? While not inherently wrong, research has shown that there is a smarter way to do it

Aftermath of Mexican forests burned for agriculture.

The smarter solution is as simple as planting different species of trees instead of just one type. BEF-China was started in 2009 as a community effort between Germany, Switzerland, and China- an experiment to record the changes when biodiversity was altered. What they found was incredible; more than twice as much carbon was stored in the plots with more species than in those with monocultures. This was not the first time species-rich environments were tested, though; this project is backed up by and based on a series of experiments done in the 1990s, where it was found that each species differs in its ability to capture certain resources. This biodiversity will not only work in the limitation of multiple types of resources, but will also provide habitats for other animals, increasing biodiversity not just in plants, but wildlife as well.

If nothing else, this new research will inform forest clearers’ decision making. It is improbable that humans will suddenly stop needing lumber, but small steps such as clearing monocultural forests instead of diverse ones will make a big differences. Because of the rising interest in the replanting of forests, this information can improve daily life in that respect. The point of no return is coming upon us, and it is important that we as inhabitants of earth do everything we can and do it intelligently.

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