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Selfish DNA in C. elegans

Posted on Dec 8, 2017 in Blog

Genes are the driver for all developmental functions. These strips of DNA code for everything required for biological life to function. The human genome totals over 20,000 protein-coding genes, and there are estimated to be over 5 million protein-coding genes across all life on earth. The first gene was sequenced in the early 1970’s, and since then researchers have been continuously marching onward to study genes in many different plants and animals.

Recently, biologists at UCLA were studying the development of C. elegans, cross-breeding the normal laboratory strain of the worm with a wild Hawaiian strain. In their analysis, they noticed that the wild strain was missing several genes compared to the lab strain. The noticeable genes that were missing included 2 genes named sup-35 and pha-1. Pha-1 was a particularly surprising omission from the genome, since it was thought to be crucial to the development of C. elegans’ digestive tract. Previous studies had shown that when pha-1 is disabled, the digestive tract develops deformed, leaving the worms unable to properly digest food, which leads to death.

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Can Plants “Hear” Dangerous Vibrations?

Posted on Nov 3, 2017 in Blog

pieris rapae caterpillarStudying the effects that the vibrations from sound waves have on plants is not a new area of science. For decades, scientists have been studying the effects of music on the growth and germination of various plants. Some studies show a correlation with plant growth and exposure to music, while some studies show that there is no correlation. Whether or not music influences the development of plants, music has such a wide range of vibration frequencies and amplitudes that it is not a useful stimulus for designing detailed experiments. For a better understanding of how plants respond to vibratory stimuli, a different approach was necessary.

Many of these past studies were focused on how plants responded to human-related sounds and vibrations. However, this doesn’t help us understand how plants process vibrations within their habitat. In recent years, scientists have started to look at how plants may respond to vibrations in nature. One of the questions scientists have been considering is this: can plants distinguish between vibrations that would be dangerous, such as the chewing of herbivorous insects, and vibrations that are harmless, like the blowing of the wind? This is what a 2014 study from the University of Missouri attempted to find out.

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Fertility and Germline Stem Cell Transplants in Mice

Posted on Sep 15, 2017 in Blog

lab mouseFor many couples, conceiving a child can be a long and difficult process. The CDC estimates that 6.7% of married women aged 15-44 are infertile, meaning that they have not been able to get pregnant in over 12 months of attempting.  Further, 12.1% of women aged 15-44 have impaired fecundity, meaning that they have physical difficulty getting pregnant or carrying a pregnancy to live birth.

Causes of these fertility issues can include serious medical issues such as early menopause or chemo-induced infertility. One of the dream treatments for these conditions involves using germline stem cells. Germline stem cells are the precursors to both eggs and sperm. Until recently, the conventional wisdom was that women are born with a certain number of germline stem cells that all convert into eggs before she is born. However, there is now some evidence that germline stem cells may be able to be introduced to the body and be coaxed into developing into eggs.

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Living Antibiotics: The New Last Line of Defense?

Posted on Aug 15, 2017 in Blog

When Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin in 1928, it started a new era in medicine: the era of antibiotics. Once penicillin could be efficiently purified in bulk in the 1940’s, it gave doctors access to an incredibly powerful tool to cure previously deadly diseases such as pneumonia and gonorrhea. However, antibiotics did not quite turn out to be a class of miracle drugs. Over time, many bacteria have been able to able to adapt to antibiotic treatment and develop resistance to the drugs. This has created an arms race between pharmaceutical companies and bacteria; as bacteria strains become resistant to antibiotics, drug companies must work to develop new medicines to fight them. In some cases, the bacteria seem to be winning. According to the CDC, more than 2 million people are infected by antibiotic-resistant bacteria in the US annually and 23,000 people die from drug-resistant infections every year. Most of these bacteria are only resistant to certain classes of antibiotics, although there have been almost 10 cases of totally-resistant bacteria in the US so far.

While the number of cases of bacteria that are completely resistant to all known antibiotic drugs is low, this is a nightmare scenario for health care. To develop a new last line of defense against antibiotic-resistant strains, researchers are looking to fight bacteria with…other bacteria. The plan is to harness bacteria that naturally prey on other bacteria, and use these predators to attack infections within the human body. Scientists are studying a strain of bacteria called Bdellovibrio bacteriovorus to this end. B. bacteriovorus attacks “gram-negative” bacteria, i.e. bacteria that have both an inner cell membrane and an outer cell wall. Many of the most dangerous antibiotic-resistant bacterial strains are gram-negative, such as the Enterobacteriaceae family (which includes pathogens such as Salmonella and E. coli) including Shigella spp (which causes dysentery).

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Serotonin, Nerve Cell Wiring, and Depression

Posted on Jun 29, 2017 in Blog

serotonin

Model of a Serotonin Molecule

Depression, or major depressive disorder (MDD) as it is known clinically, is one of the most common debilitative disorders on the planet. In 2015, it’s estimated that 216 million people (about 3% of the world population) suffered from depression. In the United States, depression is the leading cause of disability for people between the ages of 15 and 44. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, MDD affects more than 15 million Americans annually – 6.7% of the adult population. Depression is believed to be caused by some combination of genetic, environmental, and psychological factors. However, the specific cause of the condition remains unknown.

In the past, the brain’s serotonin-delivery (serotonergic) system has been suspected to be involved with many psychiatric conditions, including depression. Serotonin is a chemical produced primarily in the gastrointestinal tract, but also plays a role in the function of the nervous system. It is thought to play a part in feelings of happiness, well-being, etc. Serotonin that gets used by the nervous system is predominantly managed in a part of the brain called the Raphe nuclei, which is in the brainstem. There aren’t many serotonergic cells in this area (only about 300,000), but they can deliver serotonin to the rest of the brain through a complex system of axons. Most studies of the causes of depression have focused on how serotonin is created and processed chemically in the brain when looking for causal links. However, a new study looks at how the axons that deliver the chemical spread out through the brain and what genes effect their development.

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Modifying Mosquitoes for Genetic Sterility

Posted on Jun 2, 2017 in Blog

Aedes aegypti mosquitoDengue fever is one of the most pressing threats to global health. The World Health Organization considers it the most critical mosquito-borne virus. The symptoms include sudden-onset fever, headache (usually located behind the eyes), muscle and joint pains (thus the moniker “breakbone fever”), and a rash. The virus is spreading rapidly, with infection rates increasing by a factor of thirty over the last fifty years. More than 2.5 billion people in over 100 countries are at risk. While a vaccine for dengue fever was introduced in 2016, it is not 100% effective and researchers are still looking at novel ways to prevent infection.

One of the new approaches to prevent infection involves releasing bacterially-infected mosquitoes into the wild to crash the local population. This approach has been tested before, which we briefly mentioned in our blog about Zika last year. The method uses Wolbachia bacteria to control the population. Wolbachia is one of the most common parasitic microbes on the planet. They infect arthropods, including a high proportion of insects such as mosquitoes.

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