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Science News and Science Matters
The latest scientific and medical advance will be posted on this site. Let us know what you have heard of, or seen on the TV, newspapers or Internet. And tell us what has inspired you. We will post it on this web site. Leave your comments in the box below and email us at email@example.com for any interesting breakthroughs in your country.
Science News 30th Sept 2017 Vitamin C strikes again
Vitamin C, or Ascorbic Acid, is an essential nutrient in the human diet, which if severely lacking, leads to scurvy. Scientists in Texas and Utah have shown that high levels of vitamin C in the stem cells that become blood cells, leads to a reduction in the risk of these cells developing leukaemia, by regulating their number and activity. Furthermore, lack of Vitamin C increases the risk of leukaemia. The mechanism for this action is that Vitamin C acts as a cofactor for an enzyme called TET2, which in turn effects the level of oxidation of the methyl groups in DNA, which then effect gene expression.
The advance that made this study possible was better isolation of the cells by combining techniques called flow cytometry with Liquid chromatography-Mass spectrometry.
Despite many studies in humans, high dose Vitamin C has not been shown to reduce overall mortality, and there is conflicting evidence in major studies of lung, prostate and colorectal cancer risk and survival. But people with blood cell malignancy have a much lower level of Vitamin C in the blood. Cause or effect?
Read more at : Miller and Ebert Leukaemia: Vitamin C regulates stem cells and cancer Nature 549, 462–464 (28 September 2017) doi:10.1038/nature23548
Agathocleous, et al Ascorbate regulates haematopoietic stem cell function and leukaemogenesis Nature 549, 476–481 (28 September 2017)
Science News 25th Sept 2017 Can coconut oil help you tan? Calling all redheads.
Coconut oil is rich in Palmitic acid, a 16 carbon saturated fatty acid, has long been reviled because of its dietary link with cardiovascular disease. But now, the binding of palmitic acid to the protein MC1R may be a potential therapeutic target to reduce metastasis in malignant melanoma, a vicious skin cancer. MC1R is one of the family of cell surface G protein coupled receptors, and having a version of this protein, which results in reduced or absent signalling capacity, is linked with having red hair. This may be the reason why redheads don’t tan easily. It is also thought to be why redheads have an increased risk of skin cancer. The idea goes that if MC1R gets palmitoylated, that is more palmitic acid is incorporated into it, the activity of the receptor can be regulated, making it less susceptible to cancer. There is more production of the eumelanin (rather than the darker phaeomelanin) and more efficient DNA repair. A group from Guangdong in China, Boston in the USA and Oxford in the UK have collaborated, and using human melanoma cells, shown just this.
So should we all eat more palmitic acid? Not yet, scientists in Barcelona report that palmitic acid increases metastatic activity of a different type of skin cancer. Watch this space. And Palmitoylated , isn’t that a great word?
Read more at: Palmitoylation-dependent activation of MC1R prevents melanogenesis Chen, S. et al. Nature 549, 399–403 (2017). 06 September 2017
Targeting metastasis-initiating cells through the fatty acid receptor CD36 Nature 541, 41–45 (05 January 2017) doi:10.1038/nature20791
Science News 20th September, 2017; How the giraffe got its neck
The long neck of a giraffe has long been a controversy in evolution. The distinguished biologist Jean Baptiste de Lamarcke in the 19th century argued that it stretched its neck to reach and eat high leaves, and this stretching was inherited. Rather Alfred Russel Wallace and Darwin argued that in any population of the giraffe’s ancestors there was a range of neck lengths. Those with the longest got the most food, and so had a better chance of passing this on to their offspring – natural selection. Chapman Pincher in 1949 (Nature 164, 29-30) pointed out that giraffes also had very long legs, and that the long neck would help them drink water. But fossil giraffes existed with long legs and short necks. Heat regulation has been another idea, supported recently by an argument that the long neck enabled them to tilt their heads and necks towards the sun, thereby exposing less skin to heat, keeping them cooler in the arid environment they live in. If you have any ideas why giraffes have evolved with long necks and legs then email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read more at: Mitchell, G. et al (2017) J. Arid. Environ.145, 35-42, and Nature 549, 312; 2017.
Science News 5th September, 2017 Tiny camera developed to sit on the back of a bee
Engineers at Bangor University in Wales are developing an amazing camera that is so small it can sit on the back of a bee. The key to this exciting development is that it does not need a battery, as it used the energy from the bee for its electrical supply. The camera will give vital new information about how bees collect nectar. Bees are vital as the major pollinators of fruit. But there numbers have dramatically declined in recent years. Email us about your sightings of bees. The project is being led by Dr Paul Cross and environment lecturer and Dr Christiano Palego, a micro-systems expert.
Science news 2nd September, 2017
Princess and the pea – a Royal goes GM
Princess Anne, the Queen’s daughter and farmer, has shocked some, by supporting genetically-modified (GM) crops, saying they can be beneficial and she might grow them herself, if this was allowed after BREXIT. She told the BBC , “Surely, if we’re going to be better at producing food levels of the right value, then we have to accept that genetic technology – whether you call it modification or anything else – is going to be part of that.” This appears to put her at loggerheads with her brother Prince Charles, who is vehemently against GM crops, and stopped the National Botanic Garden in Wales from being involved with this technology. Environmental groups such as Friends of the Earth are not happy with this stance by the Princess, spokespeople saying that this is a ‘dead horse’, and that GM farming causes major environmental damage. But The Young Darwinian says’, ‘Good on you Princess’. The future for GM is bright.
Science news August 30th, 2017 3D structure of three-protein complex explains how nerves fire in milliseconds
It is an incredible fact that we can move our arms and legs milliseconds because our nerves can fire within a sub-millisecond timescale. The key to this is a very rapid rise in free calcium at the nerve terminal, which triggers fusion of vesicles containing neurotransmitter. Zhou et al have revealed the 3D structure of the complex at every nerve terminal that does this. The complex is made of SNARE, complexin and synaptotagmin, the latter being the protein that binds calcium. This unlocks the SNARE compex, allowing vesicles ot fuse with the membrane, and release the transmitter. At the nerve-muscle junction, acetylcholine is released, which thentriggers an action potential in the muscle. This flows down the muscle fibre in milliseconds, generating a large rise in free calcium in the muscle cell. This binds to troponin C, which triggers contraction.
Zhou et al. Nature 548, 420-425. The primed SNARE-complexin-synaptotagmin complex for neuronal exocytosis.
For an explanation of how calcium inside a nerve terminal causes it to fire see:
- Campbell, AK (2015) Intracellular calcium. Chapter 7, pp 334 -341. Wiley, Chichester
- Campbell, AK (2017) Fundamentals of intracellular calcium. Chapter 7 pp
- Wiley, Chichester.
Science news August 17th 2017 Bacterial sensitivity – thirty hours to thirty minutes
When someone has a bacterial infection requiring antibiotic treatment, the first prescription is an educated guess. It can take a few days to confirm that the antibiotic is killing the bacteria. Scientists in Uppsala, Sweden, are working on an exciting new method where E.Coli from urinary tract infection has been accurately diagnosed to be sensitive or resistant to nine antibiotics within 30 minutes. The rod shaped coliform bacteria are trapped in ‘microfluidic chips’ and the growth rate of individual cells monitored. This makes the potential for patients to be accurately diagnosed and treated at the point of care. Better for the patient and better for the global problem of bacterial antibiotic resistance.
Read more at Antibiotic susceptibility testing in less than 30 min using direct single-cell imaging
Baltekin et al, Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA, 2017, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1708558114
Science news August 13th 2017 Quark-Gluon plasma
Scientists in New York at the RHIC (Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider) caused heavy gold nuclei, travelling close to the speed of sound, to collide. What was produced was quark-gluon plasma, the hottest, least viscous, fastest rotating vortical matter ever produced. The transition of this to hadrons was fundamental to the events soon after the Big Bang. The quark-gluon plasma was predicted to act like a vortex, like water going down a plug, and this has now been observed. Another step forward in our understanding of the strong nuclear force. Captain Kirk would be proud.
Read more at Nature 548, pp34-35 Nature 548 pp62-65
Science news August 11th 2017 Insects vs bacteria: which would you back?
Mosquitos are insects and can act as vectors carrying malaria (plasmodium is a protozoan), Zika and Dengue fever (both viruses) amongst other horrible diseases. Malaria alone leads to about half a million deaths per year, and economic devastation of affected regions. A tiny island in the South Pacific has been almost cleared of the mosquito, beaten by bacteria. Scientists discovered that when infected by the Wolbachia bacteria, and a high proportion of them are, the mosquito eggs will not mature if the male and female were harbouring different strains of the bacteria. Result – Bacteria 1, Insect nil.
Read more at Mosquitos meet their match in Tahiti Nature, 548, pp17-18
Science News August 11th 2017 Genetic disease – cure is a step closer
The gene defect leading to the condition, Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy, has been corrected in viable human embryos. The disease causes the heart muscle to thicken and can result in fit young athletes suddenly collapsing. It is dominantly inherited so only one copy of the gene is needed to lead to the disease. The technique used was to edit the gene that carries the mutation, MYBPC3. The enzyme CAS9 was used to cut the genome, then specifically designed CRISPR components inserted. These embryos were not implanted, but the work, carried out in the USA, will give hope to families carrying this mutant gene, and other families known to carry different gene defects.
Read more at Ma, H. et al Nature http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nature23305 (2017)
Science Matters August 11th 2017 Altering the genome of a human embryo.
This is possibly the greatest ethical challenge in genetic medicine today. Work is advanced in Sweden and the UK to understand developmental biology. In China research has already lead to altering disease related genes in human embryos, which could protect against HIV infection. The latest research into changing the genome and potentially preventing Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy was done in the University of Portland in the USA. If it works as designed, it would be amazing. However caution is required as this sort of technique could lead to problems if the embryo was allowed to develop into a baby. The first is the possibility of making other unintentional genetic changes and the second is if mosaics are made so different embryonic cells contain different sequences. The scientific advance from the USA reduces the chance of both these unwanted events happening thus bringing safer genetic medicine a step closer.
Read more at
CRISPR fixes embryo error Nature 548, (03 August 2017) doi:10.1038/548007a
Gene editing research in human embryos gains momentum Nature News 532,289-290
Liang, P. et al. Protein Cell 6, 363–372 (2015).
Science News July 29th Protons on a diet
The proton has just lost weight, which is important because knowing the mass of a proton is needed to analyse atomic spectral data, not to mention determining various fundamental constants. Researchers in Germany and Japan using a purpose built Penning (electromagnetic) Trap and ionised carbon as a reference, worked out the mass to be 296 parts per trillion lighter than previously thought. The precision was 32 parts per trillion. Quite amazing accuracy and precision.
Read more at Heiße, F. Köhler-Langes, et al Phys. Rev. Lett. 119, 033001 – Published 18 July 2017
Science News July 29th Nightmare Bacteria –a wake up call
Infection with the bacteria Neisseria gonorrhoeae causes the sexually transmitted infection, Gonorrhoea. A global study just published by the World Health Organisation showed that the bacteria have become resistant to the most powerful antibiotic treatment available. 97% of countries investigated had bacteria resistant to ciprofloxacin (an antibiotic which acts by inhibiting DNA gyrase), and 66% to the last resort treatment, the cephalosporins, (which like penicillins they disrupt the synthesis of the bacterial cell wall). There are 78 million cases among adults worldwide; this is a crisis.
Search for novel approaches to fight this infection is a global priority, (http://www.dndi.org/diseases-projects/gardp/). But there must also be strategies put in place to reduce new antibiotic resistance and for early detection and screening of asymptomatic cases. Work towards the development of a vaccine is vital. A combination of political will and scientific brilliance and persistence is needed urgently to avoid a catastrophe.
Read more at https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1002344 Published: July 7, 2017
Science News July 27th 2017 Breakthrough in the fight against Malaria
There were about 300 million cases of malaria in the world in 2015 resulting in about 700,000 deaths. An exciting study has been published which opens up a possible new therapeutic approach to treatment. It is based on the clever mechanism known as ‘Nutrient sensing’. An invading cell knows when the host is well fed and adapts to the environmental conditions by altering its gene expression, leading to rapid growth and division. The protozoan responsible for malaria, Plasmodium falciparum, when in the mammalian part of its life cycle, has been shown to do just this. The molecule that is the key to this regulation has been discovered. It is called KIN, (a putative serine/threonine kinase), and this gives researchers a new way to try to attenuate the parasite replication and virulence. It is also important because there is a trend towards obesity in Malaria endemic regions and this correlates with an increase in the infection rates. Don’t worry, nobody was purposely infected with malaria for this study, it was done in a mouse model.
doi: 10.1038/nature23009. Epub 2017 Jul 5.
Science Matters July 7th 2017 Congratulations Professor Hawkins
The physicist and cosmologist, Stephen Hawking has given a lecture in Cambridge, UK, to celebrate his reaching 75 years of age. Asked what his greatest achievement was, he replied, “ showing that black holes weren’t entirely black”. His theories on black holes and the origin of the Universe have transformed our understanding of the cosmos. Asked what his blue sky wish for a scientific discovery would be, it was to discover a cure for Motor Neurone Disease, or at least a way to stop it the disease progressing. Prof Hawking has had motor neurone disease for most of his adult life, which has impaired his ability to move and speak.
Science News July 4th 2017 So is chocolate good for you?
Not all research gives clear-cut answers but gives enough evidence to make further study worthwhile. This is the case of eating chocolate! Two recent publications review evidence that the polyphenols in cocoa have positive cardiovascular benefits and also help general cognition, attention, processing speed, and working memory. The interest is in the flavonoids, mainly the flavanols subclass in the form of epicatechin and catechin. Of interest to students, the flavonoids also appear to exert a protective role on cognitive performance, specifically that impaired by sleep loss. But caution is required in the interpretation of levels in the chocolate as the results obtained by colorimetric methods were 5–7 times higher for the same type of product than results obtained by high performance liquid chromatography (HPLC).
Read more at Front. Immunol., 09 June 2017 https://doi.org/10.3389/fimmu.2017.00677
Front. Nutr., 16 May 2017 | https://doi.org/10.3389/fnut.2017.00019
Science News June 29th 2017 How to kill a plankton with a gun
Scientists off the coast of Tasmania have killed the zooplankton, including Krill larvae and copepods using a gun, but not one that shoots bullets, but an airgun that produces waves of acoustic energy. These powerful waves are used to search for oil and mineral deposits under the seabed and are known to affect the animals at the top of the food chain like the whales, but the latest research shows something more sinister. They are killing the animals at the bottom of the chain. These airguns, pulled behind ships, are fired in repeat pulses, every ten seconds, continuously for days on end. The US federal agencies have been asked to allow the seismic surveys off the whole east coast of the USA. Ecological madness?
Read more at McCauley,R. et al Nature Ecol. Evol. 1, 0195(2017)
Science News June 28th 2017 The StarTrek Tricorder comes to life
The amazing prize of $2.6 million was won by a team in Pennsylvania lead by two brothers, one an emergency medicine physician and the other a network engineer. They designed a mobile diagnostic device, inspired by a twenty third century creation, yet born in the 1960’s. The company, aptly named Final Frontier Medical Devices, created DxtER, or Dexter, an artificial intelligence engine with non-invasive sensors that together can help diagnose 13 medical conditions. And all this in a light hand held mobile machine. Amazing technology, well done! This is awarded by the XPRIZE and Qualcomm Foundation.
Read more at: http://tricorder.xprize.org/teams/final-frontier-medical-devices
Science News Humans are a lot older than we thought
Research published in this weeks Nature has over turned what we have believed for years were the origins of our own species. Until now Homo sapiens was supposed to have appeared some 200,000 years ago in the southern part of Africa. But now, skulls at least 300,000 years old, examined recently from Morocco, were found to be very similar in shape to present day human skulls. So the idea now is that we evolved simultaneously with Neanderthals over at least 400,000 years.
Read more at:
Hublin et al (2017. New fossils from Jebel Irhoud, Morocco and the pan-African origin of Homo sapiens. Nature 546, 289-292
Richter et al (2017). The age of the hominin fossils from Jebel Irhoud, Morocco , and the origins of the Middle Stone Age. Nature 546, 293-296
Revolutionary biodegradable beads save the oceans
A research team, from Bath’s University Centre for Sustainable Chemical Technologies (CSCT), has produced microbeads from cellulose, the biodegradable substances that forms plant cell walls. Currently, microbeads, tiny plastic spheres less than 0.5 mm across, are used in cosmetics, sunscreens and fillers for a smooth texture. The problem is that that cannot be removed by sewage systems, as they are too small. So they end up in rivers and the sea, where they eaten in by birds, fish and marine life, with bad consequences, as the plastic is non-biodegradable.
Read more at: OBrien, J.C, Torrente-Murciano, L., Mattia, D. and Scott, J.L. ACS Sustainable Chem. Eng., Just Accepted Manuscript. DOI: 10.1021/acssuschemeng.7b00662. Publication Date (Web): May 31, 2017. Continuous Production of Cellulose Microbeads via Membrane Emulsification.
The amazing heroine bite of the small, Pacific fang-blenny reef fish, Meiacanthus nigrolineatus.
This is an amazing story about a small fish that has just been published. When it bites, you can’t feel it. This is because it makes a toxin like heroin. Quite a fix! Many marine animals make extraordinary toxins – jellyfish, snails, octopus, and fish for example. Tetrodoxin, made by bacteria that grow in puffer fish and some octopus, is one of the most potent toxins known. It stops nerves working. Then, there are the Conus sea snails, that have a harpoon that spears prey or predators with toxin. One of these have even been use to develop a drug for use in humans. Nature knows best, as Darwin and Wallace told us.
Read more at http://DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2017.02.067
The NASA space probe Cassini sends back amazing information about one of Saturn’s moons.
Cassini was launched from Earth 20 years ago in 1997, and has been orbiting Saturn for the last 13 years. It has recently discovered that one small moon – Enceladus – is releasing hydrogen gas from an underwater volcanic vent. This could provide energy for microbial life. If this is happening then it would add evidence for the Panspermia hypothesis that life on Earth, in fact, originated somewhere else. The amazing findings about Enceladus is published by Waite et al in Science vol. 356, 155 – 159, April 14th 2017 entitled ‘Cassini Finds Molecular Hydrogen in the Enceladus Plume: Evidence for Hydrothermal Processes’. https//DOI: 10.1126/science.aai8703
Memories are not what they used to be
Look out for this elegant research, which fundamentally changes the theories of memory formation, and its long-term storage. Until now, it has been thought that memory of an experience is formed in our short-term memory in the hippocampus of the brain, and then gradually transferred to the cortex for long-term storage. This research shows this is not so. The stimulus given was a small electric shock, and therefore provoked a ‘fear’ memory. The cells stored this memory in the brain, called engrams, are formed in the cortex at the same time as in the hippocampus, and mature over the next few weeks. This memory developed, and was retained, in the amygdala. The amygdala is one of two almond-shaped groups of nuclei located deep and medially within the temporal lobes of the brain. It processes memory, decision-making, and emotional reactions. This research was carried out on mice. But it is expected that the same mechanisms are happening in the human brain. The potential consequences of this discovery for people with post-traumatic amnesia, and short-term memory loss, are very exciting.
Read more: Engrams and circuits crucial for systems consolidation of a memory (2017). Takashi Kitamura, Sachie K. Ogawa, Dheeraj S. Roy, Teruhiro Okuyama, Mark D. Morrissey, Lillian M. Smith, Roger L. Redondo, and Susumu Tonegawa. Science 07 Apr 2017, Vol. 356, Issue 6333, pp. 73-78. DOI: 10.1126/science.aam6808.
A truly life changing invention has been developed between scientists at MIT and the University of California at Berkeley. They have made a ‘machine’ that has no moving parts. It requires only solar heat to run, and can extract drinking quality water from arid desert air. As the world is getting hotter and the population is increasing, this is a very timely invention. The clever part was invented 20 years ago by a professor of chemistry, Omar Yaghi. The mechanism that absorbs the water is called a MOF – metal-organic framework. This has a sponge like consistency, and by changing the metal and organic component can be made hydrophilic. By painting the surface black to absorb the solar heat, and keeping the other side, away from the sun, at ambient temperature, the water vapour formed is driven to drip into a collecting vessel. It takes a MOF of about a kilogram to produce enough water for one person for a day. Personal water!! MIT = Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge MA
Read more Hyunho Kim, Sungwoo Yang, Sameer R. Rao, Shankar Narayanan, Eugene A. Kapustin, Hiroyasu Furukawa, Ari S. Umans, Omar M. Yaghi, and Evelyn N. Wang (2017). Water harvesting from air with metal-organic frameworks powered by natural sunlight. Science 13 Apr 2017: eaam8743;. DOI: 10.1126/science.aam8743