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Archive - Jan 2014

January 16th

Silencing p57 Triples Replication Rate of Transplanted Human Beta-Cells in Diabetic Mice

Klaus Kaestner, Ph.D., professor of Genetics and postdoctoral fellow Dana Avrahami, Ph.D., from the Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania, published a study online in the Journal of Clinical Investigation, with colleague Benjamin Glaser, M.D., from the Hadassah-Hebrew University Medical Center, Jerusalem, and colleagues. In this study, they were able to replicate human pancreatic beta cells – the cells in our body that produce the critical hormone insulin – in a mouse model in which donor cells were transplanted. The newly replicated cells retained features of mature beta cells and showed a physiological response to glucose. The results of this proof-of-principle experiment have implications for helping both type 1 and type 2 diabetic patients. In type 1 diabetes, beta cells are destroyed by the patient's own immune system and thus restoration of their numbers must be coupled with a method of preventing immune-mediated destruction. Similarly, a decrease in the number of functional insulin-producing beta cells contributes to the development of type 2 diabetes, so in principle, restoration of beta-cell mass can reverse or ameliorate both forms of diabetes. The idea for this study came from newborns with a well-characterized, but rare, condition called hyperinsulinism of infancy, in which beta cells produce too much insulin – the exact opposite of diabetes. The blood sugar levels in these babies are too low. In about one-third of these newborns, most of their pancreatic beta cells are normal, but a small portion of cells lack a specific protein called p57, due to a mutation that occurs in a single or a few beta cells during fetal development.

Soil Microbes Alter DNA in Response to Warming

As scientists forecast the impacts of climate change, one missing piece of the puzzle is what will happen to the carbon in the soil and the microbes that control the fate of this carbon as the planet warms. Scientists studying grasslands in Oklahoma have discovered that an increase of 2 degrees Celsius in the air temperature above the soil creates significant changes to the microbial ecosystem underground. Compared to a control group with no warming, plants in the warmer plots grew faster and higher, which put more carbon into the soil as the plants senesce. The microbial ecosystem responded by altering its DNA to enhance the ability to handle the excess carbon. “What we conclude from this study is the warming has an effect on the soil ecosystem,” said Dr. Kostas Konstantinidis, an assistant professor who holds the Carlton S. Wilder Chair in Environmental Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology. “It does appear that the microbes change genetically to take advantage of the opportunity given to them.” The study was published online on December 27, 2013, in the journal Applied and Environmental Microbiology. The research was sponsored by the Department of Energy, and involved collaboration with several universities, including the University of Oklahoma. The findings are the culmination of a 10-year study that seeks to understand how the most intricate ecosystem in nature — soil — will respond to climate change. A single gram of soil is home to a billion bacterial cells, representing at least 4,000 different species. In comparison, the human gut is home to at least 10 times fewer different species of bacteria. Scientists have little idea what microbes in the soil do, how they do it, or how they respond to changes in their environment, Dr. Konstantinidis said.

Gene Therapy Shows Promise in Clinical Trial for Specific Type of Inherited Blindness

The first clinical trial of a gene therapy for an inherited cause of progressive blindness called choroideremia has shown very promising initial results which have surpassed expectations of the Oxford University researchers leading the study. The aim of the study was to get the gene therapy into the cells in the retina of the eye without causing damage. After six months, however, the patients actually showed improvements in their vision in dim light and two of the six were able to read more lines on the eye chart. A total of nine patients have now had one eye treated with the gene therapy in operations at the Oxford Eye Hospital, part of the Oxford University Hospitals NHS Trust. The therapy is given in one eye to allow comparison with progression of the disease in the other eye. The first patient to be treated, Jonathan Wyatt, 65, says: “My left eye, which had always been the weaker one, was that which was treated as part of this trial...Now when I watch a football match on the TV, if I look at the screen with my left eye alone, it is as if someone has switched on the floodlights. The green of the pitch is brighter, and the numbers on the shirts are much clearer.” Professor Robert MacLaren of the Nuffield Laboratory of Ophthalmology at the University of Oxford led the development of the retinal gene therapy and this first clinical trial. He says: “It is still too early to know if the gene therapy treatment will last indefinitely, but we can say that the vision improvements have been maintained for as long as we have been following up the patients, which is two years in one case.” The clinical trial is funded by the Health Innovation Challenge Fund, a partnership between the Wellcome Trust and the Department of Health.

Ice-Loving Sea Anemones Discovered Living in Antarctica

Using a camera-equipped robot to explore beneath the Ross Ice Shelf off Antarctica, scientists and engineers with the Antarctic Geological Drilling (ANDRILL) Program made an astonishing discovery. Thousands upon thousands of small sea anemones were burrowed into the underside of the ice shelf, their tentacles protruding into frigid water like flowers on a ceiling. "The pictures blew my mind," said Dr. Marymegan Daly of Ohio State University, who studied the specimens retrieved by ANDRILL team members in Antarctica. The new species, discovered in late December 2010, was publicly identified for the first time in an open-access online article published on December 11, 2013 in PLoS ONE. Though other sea anemones have been found in Antarctica, the newly discovered species is the first known to live in ice. They also live upside down, hanging from the ice, compared to other sea anemones that live on or in the sea floor. The white anemones have been named Edwardsiella andrillae, in honor of the ANDRILL program. The discovery was "total serendipity," said Dr. Frank Rack, executive director of the ANDRILL Science Management Office at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) and associate professor of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at UNL. "When we looked up at the bottom of the ice shelf, there they were," he said. Scientists had lowered the robot, a 4 and 1/2-foot cylinder equipped with two cameras, a side-mounted lateral camera and a forward-looking camera with a fish-eye lens, into a hole bored through the 270-meter-thick shelf of ice that extends more than 600 miles northward into the Ross Sea from the grounding zone of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. Their mission, financed by the National Science Foundation in the U.S.

Discovery of Quantum Vibrations in “Microtubules” inside Brain Neurons Corroborates Controversial 20-Year-Old Theory of Consciousness

A review and update of a controversial 20-year-old theory of consciousness published online on August 20,2013 in an open-access article in Physics of Life Reviews claims that consciousness derives from deeper-level, finer-scale activities inside brain neurons. The recent discovery of quantum vibrations in “microtubules” inside brain neurons corroborates this theory, according to review authors Dr. Stuart Hameroff and Sir Dr. Roger Penrose. They suggest that EEG rhythms (brain waves) also derive from deeper-level microtubule vibrations, and that from a practical standpoint, treating brain microtubule vibrations could benefit a host of mental, neurological, and cognitive conditions. The theory, called “orchestrated objective reduction” ('Orch OR'), was first put forward in the mid-1990s by eminent mathematical physicist Dr. Penrose, FRS, Mathematical Institute and Wadham College, University of Oxford, and prominent anesthesiologist Stuart Hameroff, M.D., Anesthesiology, Psychology and Center for Consciousness Studies, The University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona. They suggested that quantum vibrational computations in microtubules were “orchestrated” (“Orch”) by synaptic inputs and memory stored in microtubules, and termed by Dr. Penrose “objective reduction” ('OR'), hence “Orch OR.” Microtubules are major components of the cell structural skeleton. Orch OR was harshly criticized from its inception, as the brain was considered too “warm, wet, and noisy” for seemingly delicate quantum processes. However, evidence has now shown warm quantum coherence in plant photosynthesis, bird brain navigation, our sense of smell, and brain microtubules.

January 15th

Single Cell Sequencing Chosen 2013 Method of the Year by Nature Methods

The journal Nature Methods has selected single cell sequencing as the “Method of the Year” for 2013. In an editorial published on December 30, 2013, editors of Nature Methods said, “Once considered a technical challenge reserved for a few specialized labs, single-cell transcriptome and genome sequencing is becoming robust and broadly accessible. Exciting insights from recent studies are revealing the potential to understand biology at the unitary resolution of life, and last year marked a turning point in the widespread adoption of these methods to address a variety of research questions. For these reasons, single-cell sequencing is our choice of Method of the Year for 2013.” The journal presents a host of commentaries on different aspects of this exciting methodology. The journal outlines basic workflows and considerations in a Primer and describes currently useful applications in a News Feature. One Commentary describes how the method can be used to determine recombination frequencies, while a second suggests that single-cell transcriptome sequencing will deepen our understanding of gene regulation. A third Commentary discusses directions that complementary technologies must take to understand single cells at the level of function. Finally, the journal provides a section on Methods to Watch as we head into the future. This section can be found in the Method of the Year packet of information.

Beetle Study Shows Mitochondrial Genes Important for Survival and Reproduction

Contrary to common belief, mitochondrial genes seem to matter for how well individuals survive and reproduce. These new results are reported by researchers at Uppsala University who studied the genes of a common beetle species. Mitochondria are vital power plants of cells. They carry their own genes, which are inherited only through females, and these genes vary greatly between individuals. In the January 2014 issue of the prestigious scientific journal Ecology Letters, researchers from Uppsala University show for the first time that differences in the mitochondrial genes that individuals carry actually affect how well they survive and reproduce. It took the researchers two years to conduct the experiments, where they followed 180 populations of the seed beetle Callosobruchus maculatus (image) for more than 10 generations. The study was financed by the European Research Council and the Swedish Research Council and the results are based on gene sequence data from more than 2000 individuals. Remarkably, the authors found that individuals who carried rare mitochondrial genes were consistently those who did best. "This provides an explanation for why genetic variation is maintained. Much like a pendulum of a clock will never stop in either of the extreme sideway positions," says Professor Göran Arnqvist, one of the authors of the study. For decades, much biological research has rested on the assumption that different variants of the same mitochondrial gene are equivalent in terms of function of the gene. These genes have therefore been extensively used as a neutral "markers" that allow, for example, determination of the size of populations or reconstructions of the history of immigration into an area.

Gold Nanoparticles Key to New Virus-Tracking Method

Researchers at the Nanoscience Center (NSC) of University of Jyväskylä in Finland have developed a novel method to study enterovirus structures and their functions. The method will help to obtain new information on trafficking of viruses in cells and tissues as well as on the mechanisms of virus opening inside cells. This new information is important, for example, for developing new antiviral drugs and vaccines. The study was published online on January 13, 2014 in PNAS. The research was funded by the Academy of Finland and the TEKES FiDiPro -project NOVAC (Novel methods for vaccination and virus detection). Enteroviruses are pathogenic viruses infecting humans. This group consists of polioviruses, coxsackieviruses, echoviruses, and rhinoviruses. Enteroviruses are the most common causes of flu, but they also cause serious symptoms such as heart muscle infections and paralysis. Recently, enteroviruses have also been linked with chronic diseases such as diabetes. The infection mechanisms and infectious pathways of enteroviruses are still rather poorly understood. Previous studies in the group of Dr. Varpu Marjomäki at the NSC have focused on the cellular factors that are important for the infection caused by selected enteroviruses. The mechanistic understanding of virus opening and the release of the viral genome in cellular structures for starting new virus production is still largely lacking. Furthermore, the knowledge of infectious processes in tissues is hampered by the lack of reliable tools for detecting virus infection. The newly developed method involves a chemical modification of a known thiol-stabilized gold nanoparticle, the so-called Au102 cluster that was first synthesized and structurally solved by the group of Dr.

January 13th

New Discovery Could Stimulate Plant Growth and Increase Crop Yields

Scientists led by experts at Durham University in the UK have discovered a natural mechanism in plants that could stimulate their growth even under stress and potentially lead to better crop yields. Plants naturally slow their growth or even stop growing altogether in response to adverse conditions, such as water shortage or high salt content in soil, in order to save energy. They do this by making proteins that repress the growth of the plant. This process is reversed when plants produce a hormone - called gibberellin - which breaks down the proteins that repress growth. Growth repression can be problematic for farmers as crops that suffer from restricted growth produce smaller yields The research team, led by the Durham Centre for Crop Improvement Technology, and including experts at the University of Nottingham, Rothamsted Research. and the University of Warwick, have discovered that plants have the natural ability to regulate their growth independently of gibberellin, particularly during times of environmental stress. The scientists found that plants produce a modifier protein, called SUMO that interacts with the growth-repressing proteins. The researchers believe that by modifying the interaction between the modifier protein and the repressor proteins they can remove the brakes from plant growth, leading to higher yields, even when plants are experiencing stress. The interaction between the proteins can be modified in a number of ways, including by conventional plant breeding methods and by biotechnology techniques. The research was carried out on Thale Cress, a model for plant research that occurs naturally throughout most of Europe and Central Asia, but the scientists say the mechanism they have found also exists in crops such as barley, corn, rice, and wheat. Corresponding author Dr.

Possible Help for Migraine Sufferers

Candesartan is just as effective as the more commonly prescribed propranolol when it comes to preventing migraine attacks, according to a new study from St. Olavs Hospital in Trondheim, Norway and the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), which was published online on December 11, 2013 in the journal Cephalalgia. The researchers have also found that candesartan may work for patients who get no relief from propranolol. "This gives doctors more possibilities and we can help more people," says Professor Lars Jacob Stovner, leader of Norwegian National Headache Centre, who also led the study. If one drug doesn't work for the migraine patient, the other one may. Side effects may also vary from patient to patient. The new study is a follow-up on a ten-year-old study from the NTNU. Candesartan is already in use by several doctors as a migraine prophylactic, but the NTNU follow-up study, which confirms the study from a decade ago, provides the proof that the drug actually works. More than 20 percent of migraine patients report that they feel better even when they are given a placebo. But blind tests show that candesartan works preventively for another 20 to 30 percent of patients. The hope now is that candesartan will be even more commonly prescribed. Migraines are thought to affect a staggering one billion people worldwide. Twelve percent of the Norwegian population suffers from migraines, or more than 500,000 individuals. This poses problems for the individual, but is also costly for society in the form of sick leave and reduced ability to work. Preventing migraines thus offers many benefits. The NTNU study was a triple-blind test, which means that neither patients nor doctors nor those who analyzed the results knew whether the patients had been given placebo or real medicine, Dr. Stovner said.