BioQuakes

AP Biology class blog for discussing current research in Biology

Tag: biology (Page 1 of 4)

Discovering and Using Your Personal, Biological, Tiny Army

Bacteria is an important part of our biology, so important that we are essentially 99% bacteria. A lot of this bacteria is part of the human gut microbiome. This topic has been picking up interest in the field of biology, and have shown linkage to many diseases such as inflammatory bowel disease and obesity. Not only do the bacteria in our gut play a role in preventing these diseases, but their symbiotic relationship helps us maintain metabolic functions.

File:The first and second phases of the NIH Human Microbiome Project.png

This is a depiction of the numerous types of bacteria in our microbiome.

Until recently we were unable to study these bacteria due to our inability to cultivate them in a lab; however, due to new advancements in sequencing technology we can now see how big of  role they play in our biology and our functions. These bacteria are “estimated to harbor 50- to 100-fold more genes, compared to the hose. These extra genes have added various type of enzymatic proteins which were non-encoded by the host, and play a critical role in facilitating host metabolism.” For example, gut microbiata is very important in fermenting unabsorbed starches. These bacteria also aid in the production of ATP. A certain type of bacteria generates about 70% of ATP for the colon with a substance called butyrate as the fuel.

File:Immune Response to Exotoxins.png

This image shows the interaction between the gut and the immune system. The immune system targets bacteria, but somehow not our gut bacteria. 

Another large role of the gut microbiome is its interactions with out immune system and nervous system. The bacteria in our gut suppress the inflammatory response in order to not be targeted by the immune system. This allows for a symbiotic relationship between us and the bacteria inside of us. This allows the gut bacteria to help regulate the inflammatory response without being stopped by the very thing it’s regulating. Without these bacteria our inflammatory responses would be completely out of the ordinary.

These findings with gut bacteria are fairly new and there is much more to come regarding their use in the field of medicine. Something to think about that I found fun was how little of us is really human. Ninety nine percent of you is bacteria, which essentially means that we are pretty much just giant colonies of bacteria. Kind of gross/amazing when you think about it.

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.

 

Who’s Smarter: Girls vs. Boys?

According to the legendary myth, boys are smarter in science, technology, engineering and mathematic fields due to biological deficiencies in math aptitude. Recent studies show that this is not true. A study, by Jessica Cantlon at Carnegie Mellon University, evaluates 104 young children by scanning their brain activity while watching an educational video. When the scans were compared, it showed that both groups were equally engaged while watching the videos and there was no difference in how boys and girls processed math skills. To further this study, researchers compared brain maturity in connection to skill, by using brain scans of adults who watched the same educational video. Which concluded that the brains scans in adults and children -of both genders-  were statistically equivalent. This study confirmed the idea that math activities, in both genders, take place in the intraparietal suclus, which is the area of the brain involved in processing numbers, addition and subtraction, and estimating.

So, why are mathematic and computer science fields predominantly males? Well, it could be for the held stereotype that women and girls are biologically inferior at mathematics. This conventional image could also be linked to the fact that females were prevented from pursuing higher education until the 19th century. To show this unconscious bias, an Implicit Association Test was taken by employers. This test reveals an unconscious bias by forcing you to quickly group various words together. If the word man was immediately linked to math, then an implicit bias is shown. This study unveiled the prejudice that men were twice as likely to be hired for a simple math job since, men and women employers displayed a prejudice against women for a perceived lack of mathematical skill.

Secure Passcodes : Not Just For Your Computer… But For Your Gut

What is the Human Gut Microbiome?

Human gut microbiomes are made up of all the bacteria present in your gut. The Bacteria in your gut outnumbers the cells by a ratio of 10 to 1. While the presence of that much bacteria sounds like a bad thing, it can be confirmed that “the gut microbiome is very important for human health—that much we certainly know”.  The nearly 100 billion Bacteria cells per gram are actually what helps the body digest food and remove the bacteria that is bad for your gut.

 

(Left) Bacteria on vs not on the intestines       (Right) Gut Microbiome Graphic

A Unique Passcode

As said above, the human gut microbiome is essential to digesting food but more importantly keeping our body healthy. The thought of controlling a person’s gut bacteria in order to keep them healthy and fight illness is fascinating to scientists. The key to using the microbiome to fight sickness is in the “passcode” that is essential to unlocking its potential. Each microbe, according to recent research, requires a unique passcode. The research done by scientists according to phys.org says that once there is a way to determine the “passcode” it will unlock a whole new world of probiotic treatment in the future.

Why Else is the Microbiome important

According to other research done within the past few years, it has been found that sleep can also be linked to the human gut and stomach. The quality of sleep a person gets can be linked to their “biological rhythms, immune function, and nutrient metabolism” however it is still unknown to what extent the microbiome is affecting human sleep.

Conclusion

While researchers still have many questions about the human gut microbiome and how it contributes to health, wellness, and overall human biology, once they have come to some more concrete conclusions the impacts of controlling the bacteria in the human gut would exponentially improve the health of many people. It may sound weird that your bacteria have a “passcode” with which to be controlled, but hey, conclusive findings of the microbiome could even help you get a better night’s sleep! And who doesn’t want that?

Can your diet’s effect on gut bacteria play a role in reducing Alzheimer’s risk?

Could following a certain type of diet affect the gut microbiome in ways that decrease the risk of Alzheimer’s disease? According to researchers at Wake Forest School of Medicine, that is a possibility.

In a small study, researchers were able to identify several distinct gut microbiome signatures in study participants with mild cognitive impairment (MCI), but not in the other participants with normal cognition. Researchers found that these bacterial signatures correlated with higher levels of markers of Alzheimer’s disease in the cerebrospinal fluid of the participants with MCI. Additionally, through cross-group dietary intervention, the study also revealed that a modified Mediterranean-ketogenic diet resulted in changes in the gut microbiome and its metabolites that correlated with reduced levels of Alzheimer’s markers in the members of both study groups.

“The relationship of the gut microbiome and diet to neurodegenerative diseases has recently received considerable attention, and this study suggests that Alzheimer’s disease is associated with specific changes in gut bacteria and that a type of ketogenic Mediterranean diet can affect the microbiome in ways that could impact the development of dementia,” said Hariom Yadav, Ph.D., assistant professor of molecular medicine at Wake Forest School of Medicine.

The randomized, double-blind, single-site study involved 17 older adults, 11 diagnosed with MCI and six with normal cognition. These participants were randomly assigned to follow either the low-carbohydrate modified Mediterranean-ketogenic diet or a low-fat, higher carbohydrate diet for six weeks then, after a six week “washout” period, to switch to the other diet. Gut microbiome, fecal short chain fatty acids, and markers of Alzheimer’s in the cerebrospinal fluid were measured before and after each dieting period.

The limitations of the study included the subject’s group size, which also accountns for the lack of diversity in terms of gender, ethnicity, and age.

“Our findings provide important information that future interventional and clinical studies can be based on,” Yadav said. “Determining the specific role these gut microbiome signatures have in the progression of Alzheimer’s disease could lead to novel nutritional and therapeutic approaches that would be effective against the disease.”

Each human contains trillions of organisms that influence our metabolism, immune function, weight, and even cognitive health. It is so fascinating to examine the role of gut microbiomes in the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. I believe diets can be very controversial, and I find it interesting to see researchers in this study show how the Mediterranean-ketogenic diet may be effective against Alzheimer’s. However, I am so intrigued to see where these findings may take us with approaches that may be effective against Alzheimer’s, whether they be nutritional or therapeutic approaches.

How Deforestation and Amazonian Fires Could Impact Indigenous People

 

Believe it or not, in 2019 there are still uncontacted(or at least minimally-contacted) tribes living in the Amazon and in Papua New Guinea and isolated islands in Indonesia.  These indigenous people to the region have been living in the Amazonian parts of Brazil, Peru, Venezuela,

and Colombia for centuries and remained almost completely uncontacted or minimally-contacted despite the rapid industrialization and deforestation of the surrounding areas.  Not only does illegal logging and mining harm the environment and strip ecosystems of their resources, but it also poses an anthropological threat where these indigenous people are losing places to live, in turn threatening their isolated way of life.  

Despite the fact that an overwhelming majority of Brazilians support indigenous rights and their protection, the issue remains unsolved due to the selfish nature of the illegal loggers and miners.

If the threats of logging and mining were not enough to the ecosystem of the Amazon, the wildfires have stripped away a substantial amount of the environment as well.  The fear of anthropologists and doctors is that these uncontacted tribes have no immunity to diseases outside of their communities. The threat could be mass disease and infection that the indigenous people would have no way of handling.  In addition, specific tribes have been hostile towards outsiders and they would struggle to assimilate into civilian life if they should even decide to do so.  

This issue is where anthropology and ecology collide, thus showing the duality and significance of the issue.

 

Human Disruption: Main Cause of Climate Change

 

Live Science, in a recent article about climate change, claims that according to a report released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, there are many significant impacts that have occurred on our precious planet. Marine life overheating as it grasps for oxygen in warming oceans, rising seas swallowing islands and coastal areas, storms growing and causing flooding, coral reefs dying, rare species going extinct, are just some of the events that have occurred due to climate change. These are now used as a wake up call, implying that there’s far worse to come if we do not control human-driven climate disruption. 

The Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate presents its latest evidence that climate change is already underway and we are “on thin ice and running out of time to act,” said Bruce Stein, chief scientist for the National Wildlife Federation (NWF).

One of the main causes of this climate change are fossil fuels. If the use of these fossil fuels isn’t reduced and if global warming continues, it could have a huge negative impact on both wildlife and humans. Researchers recently found more than 200 dead reindeer in Norway; they starved to death due to climate change, which disrupted their access to the plants they eat. After the precipitation froze, creating “tundra ice caps,” a thick layer of ice that prevented the reindeer from reaching vegetation in their usual winter grazing pastures. This forced them to dig pits in shoreline snow to find seaweed and kelp, which are less nutritious than the reindeer’s usual fare.

In addition, there are several other effects that human activity has had on the environment. According to the IPCC report, 50% of the coastal wetlands have been lost over the last 100 years due to the results of human pressures and extreme climate events. They predict that by 2100, seas could rise by more than three feet, which could result in the displacement of millions of people. They also predict that by 2050, marine heat waves will be 50 times more frequent and the uppermost ocean zones could lose more than 3% of their oxygen, eliminating populations of marine animals and harming fisheries. Glaciers could be reduced by as much as 36%, affecting about 4 million people who live in the Arctic and around 670 million people who inhabit mountainous regions. The widespread loss of ice and snow could lead to water shortages, affect food security, and cause intense droughts and wildfires. Evidence has also suggested that warming oceans have caused an increase in tropical hurricanes according to the report. 

The Earth’s fate lies in our hands.  Debra Roberts, co-chair of the IPCC, says that we can control global warming if we create advances to all aspects of our societies, such as energy, land and ecosystems, urban and infrastructure, and industry. Roberts also suggests we must as early and decisively to avoid permanent changes and risks, all in an effort to improve our lives and achieve sustainability around the world. It will require “unprecedented” political actions to eliminate all the impacts that human-made carbon has created on our oceans. The youth are our strongest supporters to prevent the most severe consequences to our planet. 

 

Does Exposure to Toxins In the Environment Affect One’s Offspring’s Immune System?

A study has recently surfaced stating that maternal exposure to industrial pollution may harm the immune system of one’s offspring and that this impairment is then passed from generation to generation, resulting in weak body defenses against viruses.

Paige Lawrence, Ph.D., with the University of Rochester Medical Center’s Department of Environmental Medicine, led the study and conducted research in mice, which have similar immune system functions as humans. Previously, studies have shown that exposure to toxins in the environment can have effects on the respiratory, reproductive, and nervous system function among generations; however, Lawrence’s research is the first study to declare that the immune system is also impacted.

“The old adage ‘you are what you eat’ is a touchstone for many aspects of human health,” said Lawrence. “But in terms of the body’s ability to fights off infections, this study suggests that, to a certain extent, you may also be what your great-grandmother ate.”

“When you are infected or receive a flu vaccine, the immune system ramps up production of specific kinds of white blood cells in response,” said Lawrence. “The larger the response, the larger the army of white blood cells, enhancing the ability of the body to successfully fight off an infection. Having a smaller size army — which we see across multiple generations of mice in this study — means that you’re at risk for not fighting the infection as effectively.”

In the study, researchers exposed pregnant mice to environmentally relevant levels of a chemical called dioxin, which is a common by-product of industrial production and wast incineration, and is also found in some consumer products. These chemicals eventually are consumed by humans as a result of them getting into the food system, mainly found in animal-based food products.

The scientists found the production and function of the mice’s white blood cells was impaired after being infected with the influenza A virus. Researchers observed the immune response in the offspring of the mice whose mothers were exposed to dioxin. Additionally, the immune response was also found in the following generations, as fas as the great-grandchildren (or great- grandmice). It was also found that this immune response was greater in female mice.  This discovery now allows researchers to have more information and evidence to be able to more accurately create a claim about this theory.

As a result of the study, researchers were able to state that the exposure to dioxin alters the transcription of genetic instructions. According to the researchers, the environmental exposure to pollutants does not trigger a genetic mutation. Instead, ones cellular machinery is changed and the immune response is passed down generation to generation. This discovery explains information that was originally unexplainable. It is obviously difficult to just avoid how much toxins you are exposed to in the environment, but it is definitely interesting to see the extent of the immune responses in subsequent generations. We can only hope that this new information, and further discoveries, help people adjust what they release into this world that results in these harmful toxins humans are exposed to, and their offsprings.

 

 

 

Stem Cells and CRISPR

Many cells can reproduce but there are a few types of cells that are not able to reproduce. One of these types are nerve cells, the cells that cary messages from your brain to your body.  There are many ways nerve cells can be destroyed or damaged, by trauma or drug use.  Millions of people are effected by losing nerve cells and for so long no one could think of a way to recreate them; until the discovery of stem cells.

After fertilization, and when the newly formed zygote is growing, it is made up of a sack of cells.  Some of these cells are stem cells which develop according to their environment. Because of the behavior of stem cells, scientists theorized that if they placed stem cells in the brain or spinal chord, two areas that have an abundance of neurons, the stem cells would turn into a neuron because of the environment it was in.  But, when they tried introducing stem cells into the body, the immune system treated them as an foreign body, as it should. Our immune system has to treat anything that does not come from our body as an enemy or we could get extremely sick.  However, the downside is organ transplants, blood transfusions, etc. are dangerous because they could cause a serious immune rejection.

Someone experiencing a spleen transplant rejection

Cells have a surface protein that displays molecular signals to identify if it is self or foreign.  Removing the protein causes NK (natural killer) cells to target the cell as foreign. Scientist haven’t been able to figure out how to make a foreign cell not seem foreign until Lewis Lanier, chair of UCSF’s Department of Microbiology and Immunology, and his team found a surface protein that, when added to the cell, did not cause any immune response.  The idea would be to use CRISPR/cas9 to edit the DNA of the stem cells, and in doing so would remove the code for the current surface protein and add the code for the new surface protein.

After the scientists had edited the stem cells, to have the correct signal protein, they released them into a mouse and observed that there was no immune rejection. Truly amazing. Maybe brain damage could be helped by this science one day. Tell me your thoughts on Stem Cells in the comments!

For more information, please go check out the primary source of this article.

 

 

CRISPR Technology is Finding Its Place in the Agricultural Industry

CRISPR technology is now laying a foundation in the agricultural world, trying to help corn growers improve the speed, versatility, and output of their crops. It has been difficult to implement CRISPR technology thus far, as the cells walls of plants, at a microscopic level, are particularly tough to penetrate. Fundamentally, CRISPR “…consists of enzymatic scissors called Cas9 that a guide made from RNA shuttles to an exact place in a genome.” The difficulty with plants cells is that, in comparison to animal cells, the extra-rigid cell walls make it immensely difficult for the guide RNA (gRNA) and the Cas9 to reach their destination on the genome. In response to this problem researchers have come up with what is described as an “inelegant” solution to this problem where they “…splice […] CRISPR genes into a bacterium that can breach the plant cell wall or put them on gold particles and shoot them with what’s known as a gene gun.” Unfortunately, this method doesn’t work in the crucial corn varieties where it is needed. However, a team of researchers in North Carolina, Timothy Kelliher and Quideng Que of Syngenta, in Durham, North Carolina have come up with an even more ingenious solution to deal with the stubborn plant cell walls. Haploid induction “…allows pollen to fertilize plants without permanently transferring ‘male’ genetic material to offspring. The newly created plants only have a female set of chromosomes – making them haploid instead of the traditional diploid. Haploid induction itself can lead to increased breeding efficiency and higher yielding plants.” This same method has been found to work in wheat and even Arabidopsis, “…a genus of plants related to cabbage, broccoli, kale, and cauliflower.” Yet again, sadly, CRISPR faces another drawback as scientist not that “…if it were done in the field, the changes wouldn’t spread because the male genome in the pollen – which carries the CRISPR apparatus – disappears shortly after fertilization.” However, there is still much hope for CRISPR technology, and it is without a doubt that we are making big strides into the future with gene editing technology.

CRISPR/Cas9: Controlling Genetic Inheritance in Mammals

Often the subject of debate, CRISPR/Cas 9 has come to the forefront of the scientific community as its development bridges the worlds of Sci-Fi and reality. Yet while CRISPR/Cas9 has been successfully used in altering the genetic inheritance of insects, applying the same technology to mammals has proven to be significantly more complex. With the recent development of active genetics technology in mice by UC San Diego researchers, a huge stride has been made for the much contested future of gene technology.

Releasing their findings in January, the team led by Assistant Professor Kimberly Cooper engineered a copycat DNA element into the Tyrosinase gene controlling fur color. The copycat DNA results in mice that would have been black appearing white. Over two years they determined the copycat element could be copied from one chromosome to another, repairing breaks targeted by CRISPR.  Ultimately, the genotype was converted from heterozygous to homozygous.

Following the success of her lab’s single gene experiment, Cooper hopes to use the technology to control the inheritance of multiple genes and traits in mice. Her experiment, the first active genetic success in mammals, has biologists hopeful for  future development of gene drive technologies to balance biodiversity and mitigate the adverse effect of invasive species.

Bears Are Adapting To Our Unbearable Drones

A recent paper by Mark A Ditmer’s researchers offers some insight that suggests that American black bears are adapting to the exposure of unmanned drones.

An American Black Bear
Photo Credit: Stephan Oachs

These drones are used mainly for conservation purposes to gather data in various environments. Yet, animals are known to be disturbed by low flying drones, displaying changes in animal behavior when drones are near. In fact, many animals display behavioral signs of fear towards a low flying drone.

However, most recently, Ditmer’s group of researchers discovered American black bears are adapting to the presence of drones after repeated exposure. The researchers performed used drones previously before not using them for 118 days. Afterwards, they began drone tests again. Immediately, using cardiac biologgers, the researchers saw signs of increased tolerance from American black bears to drone presence.

Something to note is that this tolerance to drone exposure is probably species dependent. In particular, more social animals that interact with humans frequently are assumed to have higher tolerance drones. This implies that the American black bear has evolved and habituated to human exposure and, as a result, have increased tolerance after repeated exposure to unique stimuli.

Despite this discovery, Ditmer warns that “close-proximity drones near wildlife should [still] be avoided.” However, he expresses that this new discovery “can provide benefits without long-term high-stress consequences” for drones with conservation purposes.

 

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.

 

 

 

Is Photosynthesis the Key to World Hunger?

With a global human population growth of about 83 million annually, one of the most pressing questions of the 21st century is how we will support our ever expanding population. A central study apart of the RIPE (Realizing Increased Photosynthetic Efficiency) International project may have found a key contributor to the solution.

Photosynthesis functions using an enzyme Rubisco and sunlight to turn carbon dioxide and water into sugars and oxygen. Overtime, Rubisco has created our oxygen rich environment, and now is unable to discern accurately between molecules of oxygen and molecules of carbon dioxide. 20% of the time Rubisco will grab oxygen instead of carbon dioxide, creating a toxic substance which must be recycled through a process known as photorespiration. Scientists from the University of Illinois and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service reported that plants engineered with photorespiratory shortcuts are 40% more productive in real life situations.

Currently being tested with genetically modifying tobacco plants, experts hope to apply this technology to food related crops within the next ten years. This represents a massive feat for addressing world hunger, as 200 million people could be fed with the calories lost to photorespiration in the midwest United States alone. RIPE and sponsors such a the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have pledged to allow small farmers (especially in sub-saharan Africa and Southeast Asia) free access to any project discoveries.

Cellular Roadblocks for Immigrants: The Loss of Gut Microbe Diversity

Recent evidence from the University of Minnesota in conjunction with the Somali, Latino, and Hmong Partnership for Health and Wellness suggested that immigrants and refugees moving to the United States were likely to experience a rapid change in their gut microbes. Described as “westernizing” to their environment, immigrants tended to lose their diverse, native microbes in favor of microbes that are common to European Americans.

The participants of this study originated from Southeast Asia, specifically the ethnic minorities of Hmong and Karen from China, Burma, and Thailand. The study used ethnic minority communities from both Southeast Asia as well as those living in Minnesota as a comparison, analyzing the gut microbes in these participants and using Caucasian American people as controls. The researchers also looked into the first generation children of these immigrants. Additionally, the study was able to follow a group of nineteen Karen refugees, tracking the changes in their gut microbes as they traveled to the United States.

The study discovered that the gut microbes in these participants changed rapidly. Particularly, in the group of Karen refugees, the Western strain of Bacteriodes replaced the non-Western strain of Prevotella in the matter of less than a year. Furthermore, the overall gut microbe diversity continued to decrease in all participants in the United States in relation to the length of their stay. Likewise, the children of immigrants had a more profound decrease in diversity. Researchers in this study suggested that this decrease in microbe diversity may have been a result of a Western diet, or for the children, growing up in the United States.

Image result for bacteroides

Closeup of Bacteroides biacutis(Image Credit: CDC/Dr. V.R. Dowell)

 

So why does this matter? Well, the study established a correlation: the greater the “westernization” of gut microbes, the greater obesity in immigrants. This obesity problem appeared to be more prevalent in immigrants, and the study had discovered a key piece of evidence for why.

“When you move to a new country, you pick up a new microbiome.” Dan Knights, one of the key authors of the study as well as a quantitative biologist at the University of Minnesota, says. “…What enzymes they carry…may affect the kinds of food you can digest and how your diet affects your health. This may not be a bad thing, but we do see that Westernization of the microbiome is associated with obesity in immigrants.”

 

What are Biofilms?

 

Biofilm being formed. (Pixnio)

Medicine has made great advancements in patient care and treatment over the last decade. However, everyday viruses and bacteria alike have become stronger and more resilient – even to the latest antibiotics. One such threat that has led to “…thousands of deaths…” in “…American Hospitals alone…” are biofilms. These bacterial cells “…gather [together] and develop structures that bond them in a gooey substance…” insulating them from the outside world. Biofilms ability to become impervious to antibiotics at a moment’s notice has led biologists to wonder both how they develop, and how to stop them.

To find out how and why these bacteria form biofilms, researchers at the Levchenko Lab, at Yale University, as well as from the University of California – San Diego, “…designed and built microfluidic devices and novel gels that housed uropathogenic E. coli cells, which are often the cause of urinary tract infections. These devices mimicked the environment inside human cells that host the invading bacteria during infections.” From this experiment, the scientist discovered that the bacteria would multiply until physical constraints inhibited them from further reproduction. At this point, the bacteria would become “stressed” and thus this “stress would induce the formation of a biofilm.

With the numerous mimicking devices that the researchers utilized in the experiment, they can now create many biofilms in predictable ways, and further analyze their behavior in similar environments. “This would allow for screening drugs that could potentially breach the protective layer of the biofilms and break it down.”  It is an amazing solution to a stubborn and persistent biological threat, that has already robbed enough, otherwise healthy, people of their lives.

It is imperative that we continue to make great strides in the advancement of medical technologies and treatments, as this will enable us to live healthier, more disease-free lives for the future to come. As viruses and bacteria get stronger, we need to make sure to keep up.

Microbiomes… an Athlete’s Key to Success!

For years, scientists have been trying to see what makes a professional athlete different from someone who didn’t quite make the cut. Is there something that professional and elite athletes have that other athletes or inactive individuals don’t? Is it possible to give a mediocre athlete a supplement to improve their performance? Dr. Jonathan Schieman and George Church from the Wyss Institute at Harvard University believe the answer is yes, and they think they’ve found the answer, microbiomes.

Dr. Schieman and his team conducted thorough research on NBA players, marathoners, and Olympic rowers to see if there was a common microbiome that these high-level athletes all shared that sedentary individuals did not. After immense amounts of testing and making sure the proper controls were in place to avoid confounding, and lurking variables, Schieman and his team were able to find one particular organism that was elevated in the guts of athletes’ bodies more than sedentary individuals.

Schieman and his team were able to isolate a particularly abundant organism in athletes that feeds off lactic acid. Lactic acid is a naturally occurring chemical compound that generates during particularly intense and strenuous muscle exercise. Thus, the researchers believe that the organism they isolated has a particularly important effect on making athletes stronger. In addition, the researchers have recently conducted a new study on rugby players and found that rugby players have more of this organism in their body as well as a more diverse range of microbiomes than a sedentary individual.

The microbiome space is particularly new, so one cannot conclude that these findings will be significant to athletes in the future, a realization that Schieman has come to terms with. However, if Schieman and Church find more conclusive and concrete evidence that these, and other, organisms can yield a much better athlete, the sports world could change forever.

What do you think? Can microbiomes be used to make more elite athletes? Only time will tell.

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The research is from Jonathan Schieman and George Church from the Wyss Institute at Harvard University. A comprehensive scientific journal entry has not been released to the public due to intellectual property concerns, as the findings are part of a privately-owned company.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:EscherichiaColi_NIAID.jpg

Can a Fox Be Your New Pet?

The big difference between your dog and a wild animal is the relationship that it has with humans. For example, both dogs and foxes come from the canidae family, however foxes are generally scared of humans  while dogs are “ a man’s best friend”. So why is the fox’s response drastically different than a dogs?

 Scientists may have figured it out. The study was originally started in Russia where a scientist wanted to see if he could domesticate foxes like people had domesticated dogs. He started to breed silver foxes with domestic traits: ones that were more tamed and friendlier towards humans.  But at the same time he also bred foxes that were aggressive to humans in order to make an aggressive breed of foxes. He then started to compare the two breeds as the generations went on. He studied only 10 generations but 50 generations of silver foxes later Cornell did a study on the same foxes.

Cornell studied the tamed foxes’ brains in comparison to the fox’s brain that were aggressive towards humans.  The scientist obtained brain tissue samples from 12 tamed foxes and 12 aggressive foxes looking for differences between the two brains. The particular part of the brain they studied was the prefrontal cortex and basal forebrain which are known for processing more complex information. The prefrontal cortex processes social behavior and personality expression, while the basal forebrain is a critical component to processing memories. The neurotransmitters from those regions were what the researchers mostly focused on. In particular, they focused specifically on the neurotransmitters that release dopamine and serotonin in the foxes brains  which are responsible for feelings of happiness because they trigger the pleasure center of the brain.

Through the study of the neurotransmitters, the researchers found that genes from these sections of the brain from the tamed foxes were altered through the breeding of the foxes but not the ones that they expected.  The variant genes in fact coded for alterations in the  function of the serotonergic neurons and the glutaminergic neurons. Those neurons coincide with learning and memory. This shows that tamed animals learn and memorize differently than their aggressive equals.  Now that we know this do you scientists through genetic modifications will be able to tame or domesticate any animal by simply changing a gene in their brain?

Survival of the Fittest or Laziest?

For hundreds of years biologists have essentially fully accepted Darwin’s theory of “Survival of the Fittest;” but, have they been wrong all this time? Scientists believe that there could be a link from high metabolic rates to extinction. Luke Strotz, scientist and researcher at the University of Kansas, studied the effect of metabolic intake, energy intake by an organism, in mollusks.

Strotz and his team decided to use mollusks as their objects of interest due to the sheer abundance of data that they could retrieve from the past 5 million years. Strotz observed that certain mollusk species with higher energy intakes are extinct; while, mollusks species that have considerably lower metabolic intakes are still in existence today. Thus, in the mollusk group, it was quite clear that the higher metabolic rate correlated with faster extinction. Although this study is quite primitive in nature, and thus should not be compared to humans, it is perplexing to see that a species in the mollusk group can continue to exist because of its “laziness” or low metabolic intake.

Although Strotz’s evidence is convincing, I personally do not believe that “Survival of the Laziest” should be taken seriously, as mollusks are extremely different from humans. Thus, it would be illogical to compare the correlation of this study to that of the lives of humans. So, unfortunately, it appears laziness is most likely not a trait that the human race should endorse.

What do you think? Can laziness really save the human race? Only time will tell.

 

The research from Luke Strotz is published in the journal: Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

 

Advancement in Modern Antiseptics

Before the 1870’s, sanitation was a huge problem in the growing world.  Doctors would clean tools with wine or hard alcohol, people’s teeth were falling out from not cleaning them, and people were getting infections from surgery at an alarming rate, etc.  Since so many surgeries resulted in infections, they then had to amputate that area.  Amputations had a 45-50% success rate.  This all means that if you needed surgery, you probably would die.  It wasn’t until many advances in microbiology that Joseph Lister introduced Carbolic Acid as an antiseptic in medicine.  He discovered that it cleaned surgical instruments extremely well, and prevented many infections from surgery.   This discover made the maternal death rates drop from 18% to 1%.  Later, another antiseptic, Listerine, was made by another scientist for a general sanitation, in which it was named after Lister, the father of antiseptics. 

Joseph Lister, Father of Antiseptics

You might be thinking, “All of this happened in the past, and our antiseptics are so good now, why do should I care?”  As it turns out, modern antiseptics don’t actually sterilize things 100%, and although they do a pretty good job, and there are still new antiseptics being discovered every year.  One of these recent discoveries is an antiseptic for caesarean deliveries.  A new solution of Chlorhexidine and alcohol (2% chlorhexidine gluconate with 70% isopropyl alcohol) cuts cesarean section surgical site infections by half compared with the usual solution of iodine and alcohol (8.3% povidone-iodine with 72.5% isopropyl alcohol). Dr. Methodius G. Tuuli, who is a professor at Washington University in St. Louis, is responsible for this amazing discovery and has spoken at the Annual Pregnancy Meeting sponsored by the Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine, and had his work published in the New England Journal of Medicine.  

The experiment itself consisted of 1,147 patients who delivered a baby through a c-section.  The doctors then randomly used either the new solution or the old alcohol/iodine solution. Besides that, nothing else changed in the procedure for postpartum women; and then 30 days after being discharged from the hospital they were given a call to see if the surgery site had developed an infection. The only downside that is known about Chlorhexidine, is that it supposedly causes more allergic reactions than the iodine solution; however none were observed during the experiment. 

Antiseptics are often overlooked when it comes to the best inventions or discoveries in science because it is so mundane.  People never stop and think what life was like before we had all these amazing soaps and sanitary solutions. To me, it is mind-blowing that less than 150 years ago, if a person needed surgery on any of the limbs,  the odds are they would probably get an infection, then have to get it amputated, which gave them a 50% chance to live.  Do you readers agree that Antiseptics have been our greatest discovery? Let me know in the comment below!

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