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Engineering Plants to Survive Salt

Posted on Jan 27, 2017 in Blog

saltAccording to the United Nations, over 12 million hectares of arable land are lost to drought and desertification every year. 12 million hectares is approximately the land area of Louisiana, and represents the potential loss of up to 20 million tons of grain that could have been grown in these areas. Salinity is also a huge problem for agriculture: nearly 25% of the irrigated land in the world now is now plagued by overly salty soil. These salt-filled soils are caused by factors like poor irrigation practices and saltwater intrusion from rising sea levels.

Most plant species, including essentially all farmed crops, are referred to as glycophytes. Glycophytes are not salt-tolerant and are damaged easily in high salinity environments. High salt concentrations in these species disrupt vital internal processes, eventually leading to the death of the plant. Their only defenses against salt are physical and chemical barriers in the root systems, but these features can only keep out low levels of salt. However, a few plant species (perhaps only 2% or so), are considered halophytes. Halophytes (literally: “salt plants”) are plants that can survive in high-salinity environments. Halophytes include species such as mangroves, quinoa, and Arabidopsis thaliana, a plant commonly used in genetic research. For comparison, crop plants like beans and rice can tolerate around 1-3 grams of salt per liter of water, while Salicornia bigelovii (dwarf glasswort, a halophyte) can flourish in water with salt concentrations as high as 70 grams per liter!

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Possible Dangers of Cool White LED Lights in Animal Research

Posted on Dec 22, 2016 in Blog

sun UV imageThe light of the sun fuels all life on Earth. Of course, with the massive amount of electromagnetic energy the sun delivers to the planet, there are going to be some dangerous side effects. For example, the toxic effects of ultraviolet (UV) light are well established. Short-wave (i.e., UVB and UVC) radiation in particular is known to cause damage to DNA, which leads to skin cancer in humans as well as having lethal effects on other animals and microorganisms. However, the potentially harmful effects of visible spectrum light on organisms are not as extensively studied. It is possible that certain wavelengths of visible light can be more harmful than UV light to some animals, insects in particular. It is even possible that for insects, short-wave visible light in the blue part of the spectrum could be more harmful than UV light.

A 2014 study looked at the effects of different wavelengths of visible light on the development of Drosophila melanogaster and other insects. The researchers found that blue light from LEDs (with wavelengths in the range of 440-467 nm) caused up to a 100% mortality rate for the flies before their adult emergence. The mortality rates when exposed to blue light were significantly higher compared to when the flies where exposed to LEDs delivering light at longer wavelengths on the visible spectrum. Additionally, the blue-light mortality rates were even higher than those from exposure to UV light! This was the first study to show that irradiation with visible light can be lethal to animals as complex as insects.

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Stability Testing Standards

Posted on Nov 30, 2016 in Blog

stability chamberThe development of pharmaceuticals is a lengthy ordeal. Large amounts of time and money are devoted to the process of testing the efficacy of a new drug in patients. However, it is also important to test that the drug will remain effective after it has spent several months sitting on the shelf in a pharmacy. Standards and practices are necessary to make sure that medications are comprehensively tested for potency under long-term and potentially stressful environmental conditions.

The International Council for Harmonisation (ICH) is the international body that develops these standards. The ICH was formed in 1990 to fill the need to have a unified process for evaluation of new medical products between Europe, Japan, and the United States.  Their goal is to provide “recommendations towards achieving greater harmonisation in the interpretation and application of technical guidelines and requirements for pharmaceutical product registration, thereby reducing or obviating duplication of testing carried out during the research and development of new human medicines.”

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Searching for Answers to Alzheimer’s via the Microbiome

Posted on Oct 26, 2016 in Blog

amyloid beta proteinAs medical technologies continue to develop, the average human life span is increasing along with them. The world population is getting older on average, a trend that will continue as members of the Baby Boom generation enter their later years. However, as humans live longer and longer, they are more at risk for certain diseases that tend to manifest later in life. One of the diseases we are increasingly susceptible to is Alzheimer’s disease. Alzheimer’s disease is a chronic neurodegenerative disease affecting 48 million people as of 2015; about 6% of people over the age of 65 are affected. It is expected, but not certain, that genetics play a role in the risk of developing Alzheimer’s. The symptoms of the disease usually start out as relatively mild, often manifesting as problems with short-term memory. As the disease progresses, symptoms escalate to include disorientation (Alzheimer’s is responsible for up to 70% of the cases of dementia), loss of motivation, problems with language, poor self-care, mood swings, and behavioral issues. Alzheimer’s is one of the costliest diseases in our society, racking up more than $100 billion annually in charges for treatment such as nursing home care, in-home day care, and indirect costs of locating lost patients and caregiver productivity. There is currently no cure for Alzheimer’s, although treatments such as physical and mental exercise programs may temporarily improve symptoms.

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Zebrafish and the Microbiome

Posted on Sep 27, 2016 in Blog

lactobacillus caseiHuman beings can never truly be alone. Even when apart from other humans, we still share our body with trillions of microorganisms. In fact, there are likely more non-human cells in your body than there are human cells; the most recent estimates of that ratio approximate that you have three non-human cells in our body for every human cell. This complex system of microbial organisms living inside us is referred to as the microbiome. Some of these bacteria live in your mouth or on your skin, but a majority of them (around 100 trillion or so) live in the gastrointestinal tract. Most of these are beneficial, and include bacteria such as Bacteroides fragilis, Helicobacter pylori, Lactobacillus casei, and Lactobacillus reuteri. This gut microbiome can have far reaching impacts on the human body. Imbalances in the composition of the gut microbiome, or “flora,” have been shown to impact the immune system, metabolism, digestion, and even brain function. This means that, in addition to obvious things like intestinal diseases and infections (such as CDI, or Clostridium difficile infection, which can occur when overuse of antibiotics kills off so much beneficial gut bacteria that the toxic C. difficile can spread rampantly), imbalances in gut flora can also lead to things like depression.

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A Possibility of Prions in Plants

Posted on Aug 31, 2016 in Blog

prionIn the 1960’s, two researchers in London were investigating why diseases like scrapie and Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease (CJD) resisted ionizing radiation. What they hypothesized was that these diseases were caused by proteins, rather than a biological agent. However, it wasn’t until the 1980’s that these hypothetical proteins, dubbed prions, were isolated and purified. Prions are proteins that can fold in multiple structurally distinct ways. These folds can be transferred to other prion proteins, and this propagation results in diseases similar to bacterial infections. In addition to scrapie and CJD (a human disease that causes brain tissue to rapidly decay, leaving the brain with a sponge-like texture), prions are also suspected as the cause of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, a.k.a. “mad cow disease”).

Currently, all of the known prion diseases in mammals target either the brain or neural tissue. Since prion proteins are able to transfer their folded state to normal versions of the protein, treatment methods for prion disease would involve denaturing the proteins: un-twisting them back into their natural state so that they are no longer able to induce folding of other proteins. However, a practical method to do this doesn’t currently exist, so prion diseases are untreatable – and always fatal.

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