AP Biology class blog for discussing current research in Biology

Author: tytybox

Robot Frogs??

Yes, you read that title right. A team at the University of Vermont has figured out how to make robot frogs. These life forms are only millimeters long and are neither a living organism or robot. Currently, they can move toward a target and heal themselves after being injured, but not much else. One of their creators, Joshua Bongard, referred to them as “Novel living machines” and also said, “They’re neither a traditional robot nor a known species of animal. It’s a new class of artifact: a living, programmable organism.” The new creature was designed on a supercomputer at the University of Vermont, but was actually assembled and tested by biologists at Tufts University.

The creators of this new form of life see many different opportunities for it to do good, like searching out radiation, or gathering microplastics from the oceans, or even clearing plaque from arteries. Genetically engineering organisms has always been a widespread thing, but this is the first ever time that something was genetically modified from the ground up. The supercomputer at the University of Vermont ran hundreds of algorithms to test the optimal design for the organism, it would take many types of cells and put them into a bunch of forms and body shapes. Until they were finally able to decide on the optimal body type, thanks to the help of this computer. After the shape was decided the scientists at Tufts then incubated each cell on its own then used tiny forceps and an electrode in order to merge the cells together. They were then assembled into a form never seen before in nature, they were able to move in coherent fashion, but struggled from getting up from their backs like a beetle or a newborn baby.

Personally, I think the biggest use for this technology is drug delivery throughout the body. Certain medicines for certain diseases that only affect a certain region of the body need to be delivered directly to the source, and taking it orally, or even through injection cannot get it there with the effectiveness that something like a frog carrying a certain treatment like a mailman could, which could mean a lot for medicine. These robots would also be the perfect messengers because they can rapidly heal themselves, since they are comprised of stem cells, if they were to be attacked by the immune system, and because after 7 days they can be programmed to stop working and become regular dead skin cells. So, in turn, they are both biodegradable and effective. Robot frogs are cool, but there is also a lot of uses for them, and a lot of ways this silly invention can help the world.


Can the microbiome influence stem cell growth and effectiveness?

The human microbiome is one of the most overlooked and under appreciated aspects of the human anatomy, mostly because it isn’t technically us. When you think of the microbiome, you instantly think of the stomach. Well, another organ the microbiome can have a large affect on is the large intestine. In my research this summer, I went in depth into how high fat diets can affect cancer and inhibit stem cell growth. Specific fats like arachidonic acid, or any type of lard, can cause stem cells to lyse and become bubble-like structures, instead of the branching structure they are supposed to have. These fats can also cause genetic discrepancies, and cause certain genes like Lgr5, which controls stem cell mitosis, to either be lessened or exponentially greatened, either way it isn’t good.

These stem cells are housed in crypts in the colon, and are surrounded by mainly Paneth cells and enterocytes, and remain dormant in these little holes in the colon until they’re called upon. When they are needed, they are used to repair possible tears in the intestine, or for some other function.

Now, you’re probably wondering what all of this has to do with the microbiome, but that’s what I will now explain. If an unbalanced diet is added to the gastrointestinal tract, it can have a negative effect on the microbiome and cause it to not do its job properly. As I previously stated, this can also inhibit the stem cell growth and reproduction in the colon, and can even cause cancer. Most of the microbiome is found in the small intestine and colon, as stomach acid makes the stomach wall almost completely sterile. Therefore, a poor diet will have the biggest impact on these two organs. If a poor diet is present, this can increase the amount of bad bacteria and parasites found in them. These parasites and bad bacteria can then damage and kill the already compromised stem cells, and can also begin to damage the intestine itself, which then can’t be repaired because of what has been done to the stem cells already.

This goes to show that what we eat can have a much bigger impact throughout our entire bodies than we can possibly imagine, and is a prime example as to why a balanced and healthy diet is necessary.


Vaccines for Cancer?

We all know that Cancer is a genetic disease that really can’t be cured, but what if we could develop a Vaccine, like one for a virus, that would target the cells around it to target the cancer? That’s what Professor Darrell Irvine at MIT and his students are trying to accomplish. 

Professor Irvine is working on a vaccine that boosts T-Cells, which is a lymphocyte created in the Thymus along with Epithelial cells to boost immune response. The technique is called CAR-T Cell therapy, and it works by boosting anti-tumor T Cell populations, and using these enhanced populations to fight solid tumors. Before Dr. Irvine’s work, the therapy was unable to target any type of cancer that wasn’t Leukemia. The therapy had a difficult time working on solid tumors because they would attach the T cells to an antigen on the surface of B cells, but the immunosuppressive environment created by the tumor would kill the cells before they could reach the tumor.

But, the researchers at MIT decided to give a vaccine to the lymph nodes, which are host to an abundance of immune cells, instead. Dr. Irvine’s hypothesis was that attaching them to the lymph nodes rather than B cells would give them the proper priming cues to prevent them from dying when they reached the tumor, and he was right. To actually get the vaccine to the lymph nodes the researchers used a technique MIT had developed a few years prior where they attach the vaccine to a lipid tail, which would then bond with albumin, a protein found in the bloodstream, and would then get an uber straight to the lymph nodes. In research in mice, the vaccine has been shown to drastically increase T cell response, and two weeks after treatment and being given a booster vaccine the CAR-T cells made up nearly 65% of the T cells found in the mice. This boost in T cell population resulted in complete obliteration of breast, melanoma, and glioblastoma tumors in 60% of mice.

This success rate is unlike any other treatment for Cancer currently available, and since it is given in a vaccine, memory T cells will be able to detect tumors in the future and destroy them before they become dangerous, just like how regular vaccines work. Between the success rate and the fact that the vaccine will be able to destroy future tumors, there is nothing really like this around for Cancer treatment, and I’m very excited to see the possibilities this has. And the fact that something like a vaccine, which is only capable to treat viruses, can possibly help fight against a genetic disease is also very intriguing.

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