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Obesity and Taste Buds

Posted on Jun 19, 2018 in Blog

Taste budAccording to the CDC, more than one-third (36.5%) of adults in the United States are clinically obese. The obesity epidemic costs the country billions of dollars annually in treating diseases arising from the condition, such as hypertension, Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and others. Obesity is a national health issue with multiple causes, so efforts to fight it are occurring on multiple fronts.

One of the approaches being taken to understand a cause of obesity comes in the form of studying how the sense of taste differs between people who are obese and people who are not. We know that obese people have reported a weakened sense of taste, which may be part of the problem. If they don’t get the same intensity of neurological response to eating as non-obese people, they may be eating more to compensate for that weakened stimulus. Understanding what causes this response might open new avenues to combat obesity.

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Protecting Transplant Organs from Ice Crystals

Posted on May 16, 2018 in Blog

C. elegans

According to the Unified Network for Organ Sharing, someone is added to the national transplant waiting list every 10 minutes. Over 34,000 organ transplants were performed in 2017, but it’s estimated that 20 people in the US die every day waiting for a transplant. One of the major difficulties with organ transplants is how time-sensitive the process is. The organs need to be chilled during transit from donor to recipient. However, when living tissue is exposed to freezing temperatures, microscopic ice crystals can form, shredding the tissue and making it unsuitable for transplant.

A Scientific American article from last fall talked about how scientists are working on a solution to this problem by looking at animals that are already adept at surviving in very cold environments. Organisms that live in these intense environments, such as polar fish, are called extremophiles. These creatures are equipped with proteins that keep blood from freezing in their frigid habitats. Scientists at the University of Warwick thought that they could make synthetic compounds to mimic these “antifreeze proteins” that could be applied to many applications, including safely preserving organs for transplant. Previous efforts to create these types of molecules haven’t been suitable for medical use, as they were very expensive to produce and potentially toxic to animals.

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Creating Embryos from Skin Cells

Posted on Apr 11, 2018 in Blog

More than 10% of American men and women struggle with some level of infertility. While in vitro fertilization (IVF) is an option, it is by no means a guaranteed method of getting a viable pregnancy. About 65% of IVF cycles fail, which is often due to poor egg quality. Additionally, IVF cannot help if there are no healthy eggs or sperm available to harvest for the procedure.

A solution to the issue of a lack of healthy cells might be in vitro gametogenesis (IVG). IVG is an experimental procedure where eggs and sperm are generated from adult cells, such as skin cells or blood cells. A recent article from Scientific American discusses how researchers at Kyushu University in Japan are working on perfecting this technique in mice. They started the process by retracing the work Shinya Yamanaka did on creating induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS cells) from normal adult cells (which won him a Nobel prize in 2012 and we talked about in a blog last year).

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Kin Recognition in Arabidopsis

Posted on Mar 14, 2018 in Blog


Arabidopsis thaliana

Plants are smarter than most people give them credit for. Darwin hypothesized that plants had cells dedicated to controlling root growth, like a brain. Darwin’s initial thoughts were published in 1880, but it took until the 1990’s for scientists to actually make headway in confirming that theory. Scientists first discovered that plants’ roots can determine whether roots are their own or not in a 1996 study using the desert shrub Ambrosia dumosa. They found that the roots would stop growing when they encountered the roots of other plants from the same population, but they wouldn’t stop growing then they encountered their own roots.

While researchers observed that plants could control their root growth based on whether they encountered foreign roots, they did not have an idea of what biological mechanism controlled that response. In 2010, a study observing Arabidopsis thaliana looked to test whether chemicals secreted by plant roots could be the signal controlling root growth. Roots secrete many different chemicals such as phenols, flavonoids, sugars, organic acids, amino acids and proteins. These compounds are collectively referred to as the root exudate. Researchers suspected that roots might be able to detect the presence of these compounds in the soil to figure out when they are near roots that aren’t their own.

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Searching for a Vaccine for Type 1 Diabetes

Posted on Feb 14, 2018 in Blog

A blue circle is the international symbol for diabetes

Diabetes is a condition in which the pancreas becomes unable to regulate the amount of the hormone insulin in the bloodstream. Without insulin, the body is unable to control the amount of glucose in the body (i.e. blood sugar). High levels of blood sugar, referred to as hyperglycemia, can damage the body’s tissues and be fatal if untreated. In fact, diabetes is the seventh-leading cause of death in the US, responsible for 2.9% of the total deaths in the county. There are two types of diabetes: type 1 and type 2. Type 2 diabetes is much more common and represents about 90% of all cases. Type 2 diabetes is usually caused by obesity, poor diet and lack of exercise, and is often preventable with healthy lifestyle choices. On the other hand, development of type 1 diabetes is not related to diet or lifestyle at all, is not currently preventable, and the exact cause is not currently known.

What is known is that the rates of type 1 diabetes have been growing rapidly in the last hundred years. Since the mid-20th century, the global rate of diagnosis of the disease has been rising by 3-5% per year, with an estimated 1-3 million people in the US afflicted. In the last few decades the incidence rate has jumped massively – from 1998-2010 it rose by 40%. This massive increase in such a short period of time suggests that the cause is somehow related to environmental factors, since genetic factors change too slowly and wouldn’t be responsible for such a large change in that short of the time frame.

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Prions and Memory in Drosophila

Posted on Jan 9, 2018 in Blog

prionPrions are proteins that can fold in multiple, structurally distinct ways. These folds can be transferred to other prions, and this propagation results in diseases that act like 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”). However, more and more research has been turning up other possible effects and uses of prion-like folding proteins. In fact, we’ve written about the topic before, discussing how plants might track time for flowering and other environment-dependent processes using prions.

One discovery in the realm of folding proteins came in 2016 from the Stowers Center for Medical Research in Kansas City. Their research was focused on studying memory formation in Drosophila fruit flies. The researchers were looking at the function of a protein called Orb2. They found that when male flies were given a drug to make Orb2 inactive, the flies became much worse at forming certain memories. The researchers tested the flies by measuring how long it took them to give up courtship of females after the females had expressed no interest in mating. The flies with Orb2 disabled were bad at remembering when they had been rejected, and continued courting long after they should have learned that their attempts were useless.

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