BioQuakes

AP Biology class blog for discussing current research in Biology

Tag: biology news

A New and Horrifying Effect of COVID-19

The COVID-19 virus has been terrorizing innocent people from all corners of the world. The symptoms and effects of the virus have proven to be devastating especially for young children and the elderly. If that wasn’t bad enough, scientists have recently discovered that COVID-19 is linked to erectile dysfunction.

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A Super Self-Assembling Vaccine Booster to the Rescue!

Vaccines: a topic on the forefront of the minds of scientists, researchers, and the general public. With the novel coronavirus and fiery online debates led by coined “anti-vaxers” about the effectiveness and dangers of vaccination, biologists are racing to discover more methods to improve these life-saving injections. An essential component of many vaccines, including ones used to prevent cervical cancer, influenza, and hepatitis is the adjuvant: a “booster” ingredient that helps the vaccine create a longer-lasting, stronger immune response in the patient. Recently, a team of scientists in Japan discovered a new adjuvant—a molecule called cholicamade—that was equally as effective in treating influenza in mice as its predecessor, Alum. The emergence of this new ingredient is exciting, but the real novelty lies in the process these biologists used in discovering chloicamade: looking at molecules that could self-assemble.

What is the self-assembly of a molecule, or multiple molecules? Multiple molecules are said to self-assemble if they are able to organize into a defined pattern without the intervention of an external source, such as heat. These molecules will form ionic or hydrogen bonds with each other, similar to the joining of water molecules, since they don’t share electrons equally. Identifying molecular structures that self-assemble is a common practice in materials science, but not often used in researching adjuvants. This team of biologists and chemists hypothesized that utilizing molecules that form in this fashion for disease treatments may be effective because pathogens in viruses also form through self-assembly. They wondered if a similar method in structural formation between a treatment and its virus would trigger a similar immune response.  

And it did! Cholicamide self-assembles through ionic bonds to create a structure which looks almost identical to a virus, triggering the same immune system cells to react. The structure of the molecule

An image of the influenza virus, which the treatment would attempt to replicate.

lends itself to the formation of ionic bonds because of its inherent polarity and electronegative elements. The molecule can be injected directly into vacuoles that will connect it with the specialized receptors which will trigger the appropriate immune response. A vacuole’s ability to store water and other nutrients as well as transport these nutrients throughout an animal cell is vital in ensuring the treatment binds to the correct receptors. Uesugi, a leading scientist in the study, hopes “the new approach paves the way for discovering and designing self-assembling small molecule adjuvants against pathogens, including emerging viruses.” What do you think about this new method in discovering vaccine treatments? How do you see the future of vaccines changing as more adjuvants are researched? I believe there is nothing more exciting than not only confirming the effectiveness of a new treatment, but also conducting the research with a new approach or perspective.

 

Do we never have to workoout again?

Could it really be possible to get all the benefits of a rigorous workout without moving a muscle?

Recent Biological findings show promise that protein supplements can cause similar effects as a full body workout. The protein is called Sestrin and as of now it has only showed compelling results in flies and mice. However this new drug could be the key to a more healthy population.

 

What evidence is there?

A Michigan University study set up an elaborate experiment involving flies climbing or flying up the inside of a test tube, only to be shaken back down to the bottom. This practice was repeated for hours on end to test the endurance of the flies. The researchers made use of multiple apparatus in order to effectively test multiple variables. One such variable was the amount of sestrin present in the flies muscles. This could be controlled through the genetic engineering of multiple generations of flies to select for certain traits like high or low amounts of sestrin. Through multiple lengthy trials it was determined that flies with higher amounts of sestrin showed better increases in endurance over time as well as perhaps the most important result, flies that were extremely abundant with sestrin were without exercise better suited to climb or fly for longer amounts of time than flies without it that had been training for longer. This result serves as a great case for why sestrin might be the super drug some speculate.

How does it work?

Sestrin, a part of a highly conserved family of proteins, is hypothesized to work by coordinating metabolic homeostasis by  selectively turning on and off different metabolic pathways as a means to imitate the effects of exercise.

What do you think?

Is sestrin truly the drug of the future? Personally I remain skeptical until  a multitude of studies come to similar conclusions. Are the days of gym memberships and unkept new years resolutions over? Leave a comment with your thoughts!

Running on Bacteria

In a recent article it was found that elite athletes could have a step above average people due to some of the bacteria found in their gut. Researchers took stool samples what from elite runners from the Boston marathon in 2015 and found that there was a spike in appearance of the Veillonella. An in depth definition of what Veillonella is can be found here. For the purposes of the research it was said that these bacteria appears to take lactate produced by the muscles in the body and turns it into a compound that helps out the endurance of a runner. This same trend of increase of Veillonella was also found in 87 ultramarathon runners and Olympic rowers after a workout.

To prove their findings they cultivated one strand of Veillonella called Veillonella atypical from the runners and fed it to mice. They also gave the mice lactate in order to give the Veillonella food to feed on in the mice’s gut. The results to this was a 13 percent increase to the length of time these mice could run. However at the same time not all of the 32 mice that they gave this strand of Veillonella actually reacted to it. With the mice the Veillonella used the carbon from the lactate to grow and ended up producing propionate. An in depth definition of propionate can be found here. Propionate ended up raising the heart rate and oxygen use in the mice. For humans propionate also raises metabolism.

 

The overall take from these experiments give an interesting take on how these elite runners can do what they do. The food that someone eats isn’t the only thing that affects the microbiome in a humans gut. These bacteria could appear in the gut after only one session of working out or it could be something only certain people have and others don’t. It could also just be something that people who don’t focus heavily on running experience but it isn’t quite known yet. These things could also appear to The overall fact that bacteria in the stomach could be a big part of someone being athletically gifted is new and interesting to the scene of science. I find this cool as I’m a runner and a basketball player myself so to see that the bacteria in my stomach is what helps me do everything I do is incredibly interesting. Next time you run a mile or finish a game of your preferred sport thank your gut. The bacteria in there could just be the reason your body can do it at all.

 

3D Printing Organs, how long until this technology is ready?

An Organ Emergency

Since the late 1990s bioengineers have been working day and night on a new technology that they think can change the world: 3D printed human organs. At the time of this blog post in 2019 there are over 114,000 Americans on the waiting list for various organ transplants. And a shocking 20 people die every day waiting for available organs. Clearly the lack of handy organs is an incredibly pressing issue. This is why the work being done around the world to further push the boundaries of organ replication is so essential. But it begs the question, when can we expect this science to be widely available?

The History of Bioprinting

3D printing has come a long way since its humble beginnings in 1983. In the beginning 3D printing was only used to make plastic models of parts that would then be made from metal using more conventional methods. However as the years went on the potential for 3D printable materials has skyrocketed. It is now more than possible to 3D print extremely strong metal components and even entire bridges. Looking at the lengths 3D printing had come it was just another step forward to begin experimenting with printing biological material. At first scientists experimented with creating scaffolds in the shape of essential organs and covering them in specialized donor cells. This was effective in creating working organs, but scientists were not satisfied. They wanted to print using living bioink.

The problem with printing using live cells is that, like anything alive they need constant sources of water and nutrients. This problem gave rise to the invention of “Microgel“, a gelatin made from vitamin rich materials that is used to support the bioink both structurally and nutritionally. Bioprinters often have two printing heads, one for bionink and the other for micogrel.

 

The Benefits of Bioprinting?

Bioprinting is not only an incredible technological advancement, but also a huge money saver. It is estimated that with the rise of bioprinting organ transplant costs may see a drastic decrease. Today, a typical organ recipient is facing costs upwards of $300,000. With new competition from the bioprinting industry the simplicity and ease of creating suitable organs and performing procedures will greatly diminish the cost of treatment.

When Will Bioprinting See Widespread Use?

It is hard to say when man made organs will be all over the place, but there are significant advancements being made every day. For example the cornea, the essential exterior to the human eye, is an organ that is extremely close to being ready for practical use. With the use of a one of a kind bioink, researchers at New Castle University were able to produce a clear, circular disc that precisely resembles a cornea. This cornea, which can be printed in just 10 minutes, can be custom fit using a scan of the patients eye. Although more research is needed into the long term safety of a real life procedure, this goes to show that bioprinting is not technology of the distant future. The age of bioprinting is just around the corner.

 

In closing, bioprinting is in my opinion some of the most important scientific work being done right now. There is still much work to be done. But a future where any organ can be replicated in a lab and printed up on the spot is not as far away as it may seem. The progress being made day by day will quite possibly change the world forever. It will bring new hope to thousands and will save countless lives, but at what cost? Only time will tell.

Are Species We See Everyday Going Extinct Before Our Very Eyes?

A theory has recently surfaced declaring the possibility that there are around 700 species around the world that should be considered threatened species, many of whom who were possibly inaccurately declared non-threatened on the Red List of Threatened Species.

Luca Santini, an ecologist at Radboud University, was quite discouraged by this news and took it upon himself to create a more efficient and precise method when it comes to assessing the extinction risk of a particular animal. On January 17th, Conservation Biology did a segment on Santini’s new approach.

This new approach proved that as much as “20% of 600 species that were impossible to assess before by Red List experts, are likely under threat of extinction, such as the brown-banded rail and Williamson’s mouse-deer.”  In addition, it found that around 600 different species that had been officially declared non-threatened species, were actually likely to be extremely threatened. As Santini, himself, said “This indicates that urgent re-assessment is needed of the current statuses of animal species on the Red List.”

The (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species is the “world’s most comprehensive information source on the global conservation status of animal, fungi, and plant species.” That being said, every few years, researchers evaluate and record the conservation status of different species, which then gets uploaded into the Red List’s database for the general public to have access to. According to Santini, however, “Often these data are of poor quality because they are outdated or inaccurate because certain species that live in very remote areas have not been properly studied. This might lead to species to be misclassified or not assessed at all.”

Santini’s method provides experts with additional independent information in attempt to help them better assess the species. It uses information gathered from land cover maps, showing how the distribution of different species has changed over time. This then allows said researcher to have more information to be able to more accurately classify species.

Santini describes his goal for this new method in saying “Our vision is that our new method will soon be automated so that data is re-updated every year with new land cover information. Thus, our method really can speed up the process and provide an early warning system by pointing specifically to species that should be re-assessed quickly.” We can only hope that this new method provides better and more accurate information in regards to what and who we will continue to share the planet with, and who we won’t.

 

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.

 

 

 

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.”

You Can No Longer Blame Your Parents for Your Problems

Recently, researches have determined that it is not genetics, but the environment that shapes the formation of a microbiome will impact disease onset and progression.

What does this mean?

Eran Segal, a computer scientist and computational biologist at the Weizmann Institute of Science, and his colleagues went to Israel to conduct their investigation into where diseases truly come from. They chose Israel because of its genetically diverse population of Jewish people. In collecting blood and stool samples from over 1,000 Israeli adults from different backgrounds (i.e. Ashkenazi, North African, Yemenite, Sephardi, and Middle Eastern descent), researchers compared the different genetic profiles and ß-diversity of the microbiome samples of said adults. The results were shocking: genetics determined a “very small fraction of the variability that is seen across the microbiomes of people.”

To further prove the degree of which the environment influences the microbiome, Segal and his colleagues examined the microbiome compositions of related individuals, who never lived in the same household, and unrelated individuals, who lived together. The results showed that those who were unrelated and lived together had similar microbiomes, while those who were genetically related’s, but did not live in the same environment, microbiomes were different.

Why is this important?

Segal’s research proves that although some bacteria in the microbiome is heritable, they make up a small percent of the microbiome. Segal and his colleagues wanted to take their research one step further, and examine if host phenotypes can be predicted from microbiome composition. Instead of only using genetic data to predict a phenotype, researchers used both genetic and environmental factors, which gave them a more accurate prediction of a human phenotype.

For example, in a small study, they discovered that the microbiome contributed to 36 percent of the variation between people’s HDL cholesterol levels and 25 percent of the variation in their body mass indices. So maybe high cholesterol does not run in the family?

This study is very important in figuring out the most efficient way to fight diseases. It is vital to know which bacteria are not heritable, so that doctors can use the composition of microbiome to determine how to treat an illness. I believe that the combination of the microbiome, environmental factors, and genetics is key to understanding a disease, and knowing how to treat it. Since it has been discovered that environmental factors play a huge role in forming the gut microbiome, I am curious if scientists will use this information to control the environmental factors surrounding an infant, and see if that impacts any diseases said infant comes in contact with during its lifetime.

 

 

A Step in the Right Direction: Advancement in Robotics Leading to Better Prosthetics

3356514403_e378d11342New strides in robotics technology have made it possible to create new types of prosthetics, which can function more naturally than a passive artificial leg. The H. Fort Flowers Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Vanderbilt University, Michael Goldfarb and his colleagues at the Vanderbilt’s Center for Intelligent Mechatronics are the leaders in lower-limb prosthetic research and have expressed their views on robotic prosthetics in an article in Science Translational Medicine‘s November issue. Goldfarb’s team developed the first robotic prosthesis, which included a powered knee and ankle joints. Their design became the first artificial leg controlled by thought after researchers at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago added a neural interface to it.

Technological advances, such as lithium-ion batteries, powerful brushless electric motors with rare-Earth magnets, and miniaturized sensors built into semiconductor chips, have allowed for new developments in robotic prosthetics. The electric motors, whose batteries store a single charge with enough power to last a full day, serve as the “muscles” of the prosthetic. The sensors function as its “nerves” like those in the peripheral nervous system by providing information like the angle between the thigh and lower leg and the force exerted on the bottom of the foot. The microprocessor acts as the central nervous system by providing coordination.

In order to recognize a user’s intent to do different activities, there must be and effective control system that provides some type of connection with the central nervous system. There are many different methods available, but it is still undecided which of these is best. The least invasive approach uses physical sensors to differentiate between the user’s intentions and his or her body language. Electromyography interface is a different approach that places electrodes within the user’s leg muscles. The most invasive techniques entail electrode implants inside the user’s peripheral nerves or directly into his or her brain.

Bionic legs seem to provide many possible advantages over passive artificial legs. Lower-limb prostheses with a powered knee and heel joints have demonstrated faster walking speed and decreased hip effort while using less energy. Robotic prosthesis could also decrease the rate of falls leading to hospitalization due to the leg’s natural movement, improved compensation for uneven ground, and ability to help users recover from stumbling. Despite their benefits, robotic legs face some issues before being launched in the United States. These challenges include approval from the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and additional robotics training for clinicians prescribing these types of prostheses.

In spite of these challenges, this new development of robotic legs will surely prove beneficial to amputees across the country. Is there a more efficient way to help the public gain access to this type of technology? What can be learned from these new advances?

Photograph by Andy Polaine

Helpful Links: http://news.discovery.com/tech/robotics/five-major-advances-robotic-prosthetics.htm http://www.afcea.org/content/?q=node/2569

 

Can timing change everything?

A Map of Cambodia: Cambodia Map from CIA World Factbook

Amongst individuals living with HIV, twenty to thirty percent die because of an additional tuberculosis infection. This co-infection is extremely common in Cambodia, a nation with 63,000 out of 13.2-million individuals living with just the HIV diagnosis, which eventually leads to AIDS. The HIV/Tuberculosis co-infection makes up 6.4% of Cambodia’s 5% HIV diagnosed population.

Dr. Anne Goldfeld, who has done studies on this trial as a Harvard Medical School employee and as President of the co- founder of the Cambodian Health Committee, says,


“Tuberculosis claims the lives of more than half a million people with HIV worldwide every year…”

 

She also says,


“This is a tragedy, because TB is completely curable when diagnosed and treated properly even in a patient with advanced HIV, especially if the patient also receives anti-retroviral therapy.”

 

In the past, the treatment for the co-infection has been very consistent. The treatment for Tuberculosis has been given to a patient immediately upon diagnosis. Two months later, anti-retroviral (ART) therapy for HIV would be given. However, recently, a trial entitled CAMELIA , >Cambodian Early versus Late Introduction of Antiretroviral Drugs, has helped give hope to HIV patients. The trial, which was created by Cambodian, French, and

 

American doctors, began in 2006 and lasted until 2010, encouraged five Cambodian hospitals to give HIV treatment to co-infected diagnosed patients only two short weeks following anti-tuberculosis treatment. The five hospitals are Calmette Hospital, Khmero-Soviet Friendship Hospital, and three provincial hospitals in the Siem Reap, Svay Rieng, and Takeo regions. This trial cut down the waiting time for HIV treatment by six weeks and overtime, the trial increased the survival rate of co-infected individuals by 33%.  Could six weeks really change the chance of survival for tuberculosis and HIV co-infected patients by such a great percentage? The answer is: absolutely! Did all medical physicians involved in this field of medicine agree with these techniques used to aid co-infected individuals? The answer is: definitely not.

 

Many of those who were opposed to the trial’s process said that the two treatments of Tuberculosis and the HIV  would wear the body down if done at similar times. Additional difficulties could be created for the body, which could already face toxicity with the required seven pills a day. The treatment was not risk-free either. It was possible that the immune system could become increasingly inflamed as it “rebound[ed] from HIV’s suppressive influence.” This trial was also available to patients who had an extremely strong immune system (given their diagnosis) at the time of treatment. Nevertheless, the benefits of the treatment have been much greater and more substantial than those doctors’ fears holding co-infected individuals from getting treated.

Doctors are still learning how the CAMELIA treatment can be improved and altered for the future. However, there has been enormous success with moving the treatments of co – infected Tuberculosis and HIV patients closer by six weeks. In just Cambodia, 661 patients participated in the CAMELIA trial, and less than one percent of the population participating, missed an appointment of the 8,955 scheduled for the population at the five separate hospitals. Many doctors, Cambodian citizens, and observers wanted this trial to work, and it was happening! The World Health Organization (WHO) should be encouraging this treatment more! Thirty three more percent of the initially co-infected patients of Cambodia are living! So where will the trial go next to help co – infected Tuberculosis and HIV patients? Ethiopia.

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