Friday, August 29, 2014

New Genomic Insights Into the 2014 Ebola Outbreak

The current Ebola outbreak in West Africa started in late 2013, and as of August 19th there have been 2240 cases and 1229 deaths.  The virus is spreading through Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Nigeria, and has infected aid workers from the US, UK, Spain, and possibly Germany and India.  In response to this ongoing and unprecedented Ebola outbreak, a team of researchers has sequenced and analyzed 99 Ebola virus genomes, providing vital information about the origin and transmission of this outbreak.

Ebola has an average case fatality rate of 78%.  Here is a really great (but somewhat graphic - you've been warned) article about what Ebola does to your body.  In a nutshell, it starts out with a fever, sore throat, muscle pains, and headache (a lot like the flu).  As the virus progresses, your ravaged immune system releases what is known as a "cytokine storm", where your immune system begins attacking your organs in an attempt to get rid of the virus.  This leads to hemorrhagic fever, which causes the infected person to bleed to death.  It's some pretty gross stuff, and completely devastating.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Cancer Leaves an Epigenetic Fingerprint on DNA

Cancer cells splitting.  (stock image)
Epigenetic modifications to the genome switch genes on and off based on environmental exposure, and essentially tell cells what to do.  It turns out that illness can also cause epigenetic changes through large-scale, genome-wide DNA methylation.  A new study out of John Hopkins University, and published in the lovely open access journal Genome Medicine, has found that cancer leaves a very distinct epigenetic signature in the genome.  These modifications are key to cancer development, allowing tumor cells to quickly adapt to changes in their environment.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Science This Week (Aug 18-24, 2014)

The first microscopic, slow-motion footage of a jellyfish sting:

While it sounds like the plot to a cheesy horror movie, Alzheimer's patients to be treated using young blood.

Researchers have developed a new type of shape-shifting plastic that could be used in facial reconstruction.

More than just X and Y: microRNAs also play a role in differentiating male and female tissues in fruit flies. (Open Access)

Artificial leaves may be faster at photosynthesis than natural leaves.

The world's primary forests - those that have not been touched by human activity - are diminishing, a new study provides policy options for conservation.

A microbial ecosystem has been discovered beneath the Antarctic ice sheets.

Elephant populations in Africa are dropping 2-3% per year thanks to poaching.

Animal calls contain more language-like structure than we thought.

Viruses are driving the life-and-death dynamics of algal blooms, with huge implications for our climate.

The fungus that has been killing people with AIDS in Southern California for years has been identified.  By a 13 year old girl!  (Open Access)

Accumulation of ibuprofen in rivers is threatening fish.

A newly discovered ant species supports a controversial theory of species formation.

More insights into the REAL paleo diet. (Open Access).  And a really great (albeit long) video on the current fad paleo diet:

Not news, but I just stumbled upon it this week: did a time-traveling bird sabotage the Large Hadron Collider?

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Comparing Small and Large Genomes: the Antarctic midge and the Loblolly pine

This here on the left is the Antarctic midge - a small, flightless midge that is endemic to Antarctica.  Despite being only 2-6 millimeters (0.08-0.23 in) long, it is the largest purely terrestrial animal in Antarctica, and the only insect.

On the right is the Loblolly pine.  Native to the Southern US, it is the second most common tree species in the US, and is the most commercially important tree.  It can reach a height of up to 30-35 meters (98-115 ft).

At 99 megabases, the Antarctic midge has the smallest insect genome to date - smaller even than the lice genome.  Compare that to the loblolly pine, with the largest genome sequenced to date, at 23.2 gigabase pairs, or 234 times larger than that of the midge!  These two genomes were sequenced just this year (and are both Open Access!).

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Move Over Megalodon - Actual Sharks Are Far More Interesting!

In honor of Shark Week, let's examine some recent shark research.  But unlike shark week documentaries, I won't lie to you (no, Megalodon is not still living). 

Sharks are friggin' amazing works of evolution!

Monday, August 11, 2014

Fundamental Plant Biochemical Pathway Origins Traced Back to Ancient Bacteria

Phenylalanine is a precursor for lignin, a compound
that strengthens wood.
Humans are incapable of making half of the amino acids used as protein building blocks.  These are called essential amino acids, because we must obtain them from other sources.  But like the badasses that they are, plants can make all of the amino acids, and supply animals with essential amino acids (Plants are boring? Pshaw).  But a new study reveals that the chemical pathway that plants use to make phenylalanine, an amino acid used to make hundreds of other chemicals, including ones that make wood strong and give red wine its colour, can be traced back to two groups of ancient bacteria.  The origins of many other plant chemical pathways have been traced back to fungi, a group that is fairly evolutionarily close to plants.  But clearly the phenylalanine pathway predates the divergence of fungi from other life.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Gene Deletion in Adult Mice Creates a Game-Changing Cancer Model

Lab mice have been a great model for finding out a whole host of important genetic information in cancer research, but generating genetically engineered mice containing cancer-causing genes, through breeding or stem cell manipulation, is a long and expensive process.  Yesterday, researchers from MIT published a new method for genetically engineering mice that is much simpler than the typical method.  The researchers expect that this method, which uses the CRISPR/Cas gene editing system, will be a game-changer in cancer research.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Butterflies and Fluid Dynamics

In seriously gross news, I just found out that butterflies and moths use their proboscis not only to sip nectar from flowers, but also to sip more complex and viscous fluids, like the blood and tears of animals (that should give my sister nightmares for the rest of the month).  Researchers out of Clemson University are attempting to mimic the proboscis by creating tiny probes that could siphon liquid out of single cells for medical testing, diagnosis, and treatment.  This appendage is a great choice because it is able to perform multiple tasks beyond liquid acquisition: it is also a sensory organ, it can coil and uncoil, and it is self-cleaning.  The ultimate idea behind this project is the eventually allow doctors to pluck out a single defective gene from a cell and replace it with a good one.  While this is an ambitious goal, this work does provide some fantastic new information about adapting insect physiology into medical technology.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

It's a TRAP: a new target in the fight against cancer discovered

By studying a protein that is key to tumor metabolism, researchers have discovered its role in a number of age-related pathologies, including obesity, oxidative stress, and spontaneous tumor formation.  This protein, TRAP-1 (TNFR-associated protein-1), is a chaperone protein belonging to the Hsp90 family.  These proteins maintain cellular processes, including protecting against oxidative stress and apoptosis.  Chaperone proteins are highly expressed in cancer cells, partly explaining their resilience.  In healthy cells, TRAP-1 is normally involved in maintaining mitochondrial integrity, and protecting against oxidative stress.  Cancer cells rewire cellular energy production in the mitochondria, increasing levels of glycolysis and lactic acid fermentation, making TRAP-1 a potential target for anticancer strategies. 

Friday, August 1, 2014

In Defense of "Pointless" Research

A comment found in this article. Emphasis mine.
My pet peeve is the idea among members of the general public that some research is more important than other research, and that they get to decide what is significant and what is not.  You see it often in politics, on the news, and in the comments section of many science articles: yeah, cool research bro, but will it cure cancer?  I am a biologist deep down to my core, and I hate (HATE) the idea that absolutely everything must relate back to human medicine and well-being to be interesting or valid research.  Research funding allocation is increasingly based on how much "impact" the research has.  Whatever happened to research for the sake of research?  I hear people lament the lack of good, solid, game-changing scientific discoveries, but maybe it's because we penalize research for the sake of research and expanding the limits of knowledge, and only reward productive research.