Science news January 2018

Great Barrier Reef under attack


The Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Queensland, Australia is one of the wonders of the world. But it is under attack! Not only by humans this time, but also by the crown-of-thorns starfish, Acanthaster planci. The Australian Institute of Marine Science has carried out surveys, and found that there has been a 50% loss of coral between 1985 and 2012. Half caused by the starfish. Yes warmer water, human development and pollution have also caused damage. But these starfish actually eat the polyps of the coral, killing it. Amazingly the Australian government are investing £35 million to protect the reef from all of this attack. £5.7 million of this will be used to cull the starfish where divers will inject bile into hundreds of thousands of them. Quite a challenge.

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  4. see this fantastic video –


‘W’ to the rescue in bacterial attack. Jan 2018

Colitis is a painful debilitating condition where the bowel becomes inflamed. One of the reasons for this is the overgrowth of some bacteria like E. Coli, which live in the gut without causing problems, until there are too many of them. Using antibiotics to kill them off sometimes works, but is a blunt weapon. The antibiotics kill many types of bacteria, some of which are the good guys, leaving the nasty ones to grow unopposed, and the delicate ecosystem of the colon is upset.

Scientists in Texas and California have used a property of the bad guys that is they respire in the very low oxygen environment using a Molybdenum dependent cofactor. To kill them off, the Molybdenum has been swopped with Tungsten, or ‘W’, and then the bugs can’t respire. This is very elegant. There is a possibility of an oral medicine which will reduce inflammation in the colon, by selectively and precisely hitting the bad bacteria. Furthermore it doesn’t affect the rest of the gut flora when there is no inflammation, leaving the good bacteria alone. Although the work has been done in mice, there is evidence it will work in humans. This is very important and exciting work but don’t try it as tungsten is very toxic so much more research is required before it is safe for humans.

Read more at  Precision editing of the gut microbiota ameliorates colitis. Zhu W., et al. Nature  553 (11th Jan) 2018 pp208-211


Bubbles: An exciting new way to look inside the gut.  Jan 2018

The deep ocean, Saturn’s surface: inhospitable places very difficult to study. But what about closer to home? The core of our own large bowel is a very inhospitable, anaerobic place and difficult to study, especially in real time. There are many more microbial cells in the bowel than all the cells in the rest of the body. They are not randomly scattered but act as an ecosystem with constant battles for supremacy within their realm. Scientists at the California Institute of Technology have used ultrasound to detect microbes deep with in gut. The cells have been genetically engineered to express ‘acoustic reporter genes’. The bacteria make gas filled vesicles, bubbles, which can be detected by ultrasound. This is an exciting potential new way to study gut diseases and also to target tumours. A clever idea indeed.

Read more at :   Acoustic reporter genes for noninvasive imaging of microorganisms in mammalian hosts. Bourdeau R W,  Lee-Gosselin A et al   Nature 553, 86–90 (04 January 2018) doi:10.1038/nature25021

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