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University of Virginia School of Medicine have discovered that a gene called Oct4 — which scientific dogma insists is inactive in adults — actually plays a vital role in preventing ruptured atherosclerotic plaques inside blood vessels, the underlying cause of most heart attacks and strokes.
The researchers found that Oct4 controls the conversion of smooth muscle cells into protective fibrous “caps” inside plaques, making the plaques less likely to rupture. They also discovered that the gene promotes many changes in gene expression that are beneficial in stabilizing the plaques. In addition, the researchers believe it may be possible to develop drugs or other therapeutic agents that target the Oct4 pathway as a way to reduce the incidence of heart attacks or stroke.
The researchers are also currently testing Oct4′s possible role in repairing cellular damage and healing wounds, which would make it useful for regenerative medicine.
Oct4 is one of the “stem cell pluripotency factors” described by Shinya Yamanaka, PhD, of Kyoto University, for which he received the 2012 Nobel Prize. His lab and many others have shown that artificial over-expression of Oct4 within somatic cells grown in a lab dish is essential for reprogramming these cells into induced pluripotential stem cells, which can then develop into any cell type in the body or even an entire organism.
“Finding a way to reactivate this pathway may have profound implications for health and aging,” said researcher Gary K. Owens, director of UVA’s Robert M. Berne Cardiovascular Research Center. “This could impact many human diseases and the field of regenerative medicine. [It may also] end up being the ‘fountain-of-youth gene,’ a way to revitalize old and worn-out cells.”
Alison L. Van Eenennaam, PhD, a geneticist and cooperative extension specialist also at UC-Davis, is working with the Minnesota-based company Recombinetics on, among other things, a project that has produced some of the Holstein dairy cattle that lack horns by editing one allele to match another found in Angus cattle.
“We’ve still got a dairy cow with all the good dairy genetics,” she said. “We’ve just gone in and tweaked a little snippet of DNA at the gene that makes horns and made it so it’s the variant for Angus, which doesn’t grow horns.”
The effects of this sudden release of particles and energy have been observed throughout the solar system and beyond.
In a first, the US space agency has directly observed fundamental process of nature after sending four spacecraft through an invisible whirlpool in space called magnetic reconnection, like sending sensors up into a hurricane. The findings showed that magnetic reconnection is dominated by the physics of electrons - thus providing crucial information about what powers this fundamental process in nature.
Magnetic reconnection is one of the prime drivers of space radiation and a key factor in the quest to learn more about our space environment and protect our spacecraft and astronauts. The effects of this sudden release of particles and energy - such as giant eruptions on the sun or radiation storms in near-Earth space - have been observed throughout the solar system and beyond.
"We developed a mission called the Magnetospheric Multiscale mission (MMS) that for the first time would have the precision needed to gather observations in the heart of magnetic reconnection," said Jim Burch, principal investigator at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas.
"We received results faster than we could have expected. By seeing magnetic reconnection in action, we have observed one of the fundamental forces of nature," he added. MMS is made of four identical spacecraft that were launched in March 2015. They fly in a pyramid formation to create a full 3D map of any phenomena they observe.
On October 16, 2015, the spacecraft travelled straight through a magnetic reconnection event at the boundary where Earth's magnetic field bumps up against the sun's magnetic field.
In only a few seconds, the 25 sensors on each of the spacecraft collected thousands of observations. By watching these electrons, MMS made the first observation of the predicted breaking and interconnection of magnetic fields in space.
"The data showed the entire process of magnetic reconnection to be fairly orderly and elegant," said Michael Hesse, space scientist at Goddard, in a paper published in the journal Science. There does not seem to be much turbulence present, or at least not enough to disrupt or complicate the process.
This suggests that it is the physics of electrons that is at the heart of understanding how magnetic field lines accelerate the particles.
Since its launch, MMS has made more than 4,000 trips through the magnetic boundaries around Earth, each time gathering information about the way the magnetic fields and particles move.
The promise of short interfering RNA (siRNA) is that it can be harnessed to turn off harmful genes in the cell. The difficulty is getting siRNA into the cell in the first place. In a new approach, nanoengineers have driven siRNA into the cell on acoustically-propelled nanomotors, silencing genes faster and more completely than with current methods (ACS Nano2016, DOI: 10.1021/acsnano.6b01415).
To silence a gene, researchers tap the cell’s own gene suppression system, which quashes the RNA messengers that are produced when a DNA sequence is expressed. The messengers are knocked out by siRNA, complementary to a given messenger RNA, which binds the mRNA and prevents it from being translated into a protein. Scientists can mooch off the cell’s gene suppression infrastructure simply by inserting an engineered siRNA specific to a target into the cell.
But that’s easier said than done. The negatively charged siRNA has to cross a negatively-charged cell membrane, traverse the intracellular milieu, and bump into the cell’s silencing complex before degradation enzymes destroy it.
The delivery challenge has spawned a bounty of possible siRNA carriers: metal particles, lipid bubbles, hydrogels, and more. Most of these strategies rely on some form of chemical camouflage to enter the cell and on diffusion to do the rest. But Yi Chen and Joseph Wang of the University of California, San Diego, thought that ultrasound-propelled nanowires might produce an siRNA transporter with more oomph.
When bombarded with ultrasound, these tiny gold rods—about 4 μm long, 200 nm in diameter, and concave at one end—scurry into motion. They penetrate cells, bounce around like pinballs, and even spin.
“Angular momentum measures how much something is rotating,” one of the study’s researchers, Kyle Ballantine, told Trinity News. “For a beam of light, although traveling in a straight line it can also be rotating around its own axis.” Up until this finding, physicists thought the angular momentum of all forms of light was a multiple of Planck’s constant. Apparently, that’s not so.
To uncover this information, the researchers began by searching for new behaviors of light by shining beams through crystals to create “screw-like structures.” They used the theory of quantum mechanics to analyze these beam structures and realized that the angular momentum of the photon would be a half-integer, not a multiple of Planck’s constant.
This discovery might not sound like much, but researchers suggest that it will influence our knowledge about the very essence of light. “Our discovery will have real impacts for the study of light waves in areas such as secure optical communications,” Professor John Donegan said.
Finding a new form of light is undoubtedly exciting. However, much of the physics community’s real joy comes from validating 30-year-old theoretical physics predictions. In the 1980s, physicists speculated ways in which quantum mechanics would open doors for strange new discoveries, such as particles with fractions of their expected quantum numbers. This research provides the first validation of those predictions. “This discovery is a breakthrough for the world of physics and science alike,” said CRANN Director, Stefano Santo.
Earth’s continuously changing magnetic field is thought to be largely generated by superheated, swirling liquid iron in Earth’s outer core. Other sources of earthly magnetism include minerals in our world’s mantle and crust.
Earth’s ionosphere, magnetosphere and oceans also play a role. The European Space Agency (ESA) now has two years of data from a trio of satellites in Earth-orbit, designed to measure magnetism from these various sources. The mission is called Swarm. At last week’s Living Planet Symposium held in Prague in the Czech Republic (May 9-13, 2016), scientists presented new results from the Swarm satellite trio and provided some recent insights about how Earth’s magnetic field is changing at this time.
Among other things, they said that the field has weakened by about 3.5% at high latitudes over North America, while it has grown about 2% stronger over Asia. The region where the field is at its weakest field – the South Atlantic Anomaly – has moved steadily westward and further weakened by about 2%.
Meanwhile, the magnetic north pole has been wandering east, towards Asia. The animation shown in this article is based partly on results from ESA’s Swarm mission, and partly on information from the CHAMP and Ørsted satellites. It shows how the strength of Earth’s magnetic field changed between 1999 and mid-2016. Blue depicts where the field is weak and red shows regions where the field is strong. As you can see, the changes in field strength are relatively small.
The CRISPR/Cas9 system is currently the technique in genome editing. Thanks to recent developments in the CRISPR genome editing system, we are able to alter DNA with unprecedented precision and accuracy. Ultimately, this revolutionary genome editing technique allows us to modify any region of the genome of any species—without harming other genes. But more than that, we are able to edit these genes at just a fraction of the cost of previous methods.
It has utterly revolutionized gene editing. However, a team of researchers has just developed a new approach that just might prove to be as efficient and effective as the current standard.
According to the report, the method is based on the Natronobacterium gregoryi Argonaute (NgAgo), a DNA-guided endonuclease that’s similar to Cas9, the endonuclease of CRISPR. These are a specific type of protein, otherwise known as restriction enzymes, that are responsible for cutting DNA at specific locations. Remarkably, the study shows that NgAgo is suitable for genome editing in human cells.
The team asserts that their study has a number of key differences between NgAgo and Cas9, where the former is at the advantage. They claim that that the method appears to have a low tolerance to guide-target mismatches, leading to a high efficiency in editing:
One of these is that NgAgo does not need to be followed by a protospacer-adjacent motif (PAM), a DNA sequence seen in Cas9. Notably, Cas9 will not successfully bind or cleave a target DNA sequence if this is not followed by the PAM (as it is responsible for the protein to differentiate CRISPR DNA from target DNA).
Another benefit is that the loading temperature of NgAgo is found to be at 55°C and not at Cas9’s 37°C. This shows that this could be another option for genome editing at conditions such as this. Also, at this temperature, the method follows a “one-guide-faithful” rule, that is, NgAgo cannot swap target DNA with other free DNA, minimizing off-target effects.
Though there has yet to be an extensive side-by-side comparison of the two enzymes, NgAgo and Cas9 appear to have similar efficiencies. The authors report that their tests with 47 guides targeting 8 human genes, the results showed a 21% to 41% efficiency.
Old-fashioned breeding techniques are bearing more fruit than genetic engineering in developing hyper-efficient plants.
Big corporations such as DuPont Pioneer in Johnston, Iowa, have spent more than a decadedeveloping improved crops through genetic engineering, and some companies say that their transgenic varieties look promising in field trials. But there are still no fertilizer-frugal transgenic crops on the market, and several agricultural organizations around the globe are reviewing their biotechnology initiatives in this area.
Plant biologist Allen Good of the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, spent years working with companies to develop genetically modified (GM) crops that require little fertilizer, but he says that this approach has not been as fruitful as conventional techniques. The problem is that there are so many genes involved in nutrient uptake and use — and environmental variations alter how they are expressed.
“Nutrient efficiency was supposed to be one of those traits with broad applicability that could make companies lots of money. But they haven't developed the way we thought,” says Good.
Despite the scientific and breeding challenges, some researchers say that all strategies must be explored to develop crops that are less nutrient needy. With the global population heading towards 10 billion people by 2050, frugal crops could be essential to feed the planet. “There is a huge worldwide potential for these traits to help increase food production and sustainable development,” says Matin Qaim, an agricultural economist at the University of Göttingen in Germany.
Is dark energy the reason time moves forward? For years, physicists have attempted to explain dark energy - a mysterious influence that pushes space apart faster than gravity can pull the things in it together. But physics isn’t always about figuring out what things are. A lot of it is figuring out what things cause. In a recent paper, a group of physicists asked this very question about dark energy, and found that in some cases, it might cause time to go forward.
When you throw a ball into the air, it starts with some initial speed-up, but then it slows as Earth’s gravity pulls it down. If you throw it fast enough (about 11 km per second, for those who want to try), it’ll never slow down enough to turn around and start falling back towards you, but it’ll still move more slowly as it moves away from you, because of Earth’s gravity.
Physicists and astronomers in the 1990s expected something similar to have occurred after the big bang - an event that threw matter out in all directions. The collective gravity from all that matter should have slowed it all down, just like the Earth slows down the ball. But that’s not what they found.
Instead, everything seems to have sped up. There’s something pervading the Universe that physically spreads space apart faster than gravity can pull things together. The effect is small - it’s only noticeable when you look at far-away galaxies - but it’s there. It’s become known as dark energy - "dark", because no one knows what it is.
Science is nothing if not the process of humans looking for things they can’t explain, so this isn’t the first time the Universe has stumped us. For centuries, one of those stumpers has been time itself: Why does time have an arrow pointing from the past to the present to the future?
It might seem like a silly question - I mean, if time didn’t go forward, then effects would precede causes, and that seems like it should be impossible - but it’s less of one than you might think.
The Universe, as far as we can tell, only operates according to laws of physics. And just about all of the laws of physics that we know are completely time-reversible, meaning that the things they cause look exactly the same whether time runs forward or backward.
One example is the path of a planet going around a star, which is governed by gravity. Whether time runs forward or backward, planetary orbits follow the exact same paths. The only difference is the direction of the orbit.
But one important piece of physics isn’t time-reversible, and that’s the second law of thermodynamics. It states that as time moves forward, the amount of disorder in the Universe will always increase. Just like dark energy, it’s something we’ve noticed about the Universe, and it’s something that we still don’t totally understand - though admittedly we have a better idea of it than we do of dark energy.
Physicists have, for this reason, reluctantly settled on the second law as the source of time’s arrow: disorder always has to increase after something happens, which requires that time can only move in one direction.
So physicists A. E. Allahverdyan from the Yerevan Physics Institute and V. G. Gurzadyan from Yerevan State University, both in Armenia, decided to see if - at least in a limited situation - dark energy and the second law might be related. To test it, they looked at the simple case of something like a planet orbiting a star with a changing mass.
They found that if dark energy either doesn’t exist or if it pulls space together, the planet just dully orbits the star without anything interesting happening. There’s no way to tell an orbit going forward in time from one going backward in time.
But if dark energy pushes space apart, like it does in our Universe, the planet eventually gets thrown away from the star on a path of no return. This gives us a distinction between the past and the future: run time one way, and the planet is flung off, run it the other way, and the planet comes in and gets captured by the star.
Dark energy naturally leads to an arrow of time. The authors stress that this is a really limited situation, and they’re certainly not claiming dark energy is the reason time only ever moves forward. But they’ve shown a possible link between thermodynamics and dark energy that could help us to understand either - or maybe both - better than we ever have.
The research has been published in Physical Review E.
A team of scientists from the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology (MIPT), the National Research University of Electronic Technology (MIET), and the Prokhorov General Physics Institute have proposed a theoretical model that explains the unexpectedly high values of the linear magnetoelectric effect in BiFeO3 (bismuth ferrite) that have been observed in a number of experiments. The team also suggested a way of further enhancing the effect. The results of the study have been published in the journal Physical Review B.
One particular feature of bismuth ferrite is that in bulk samples, spins of Fe3+ iron ions are arranged in the form of a cycloid. This spin structure can be destroyed by a strong magnetic field or mechanical stress. Without a spin cycloid, bismuth ferrite exhibits a large linear magnetoelectric effect, and this effect was the focal point of the study.
"The theoretical description presented in the paper may be applicable to other multiferroics similar to BiFeO3. This will help in predicting the value of their magnetoelectric effect, which, in turn, will make it easier to find new and promising materials for industrial applications," says the head of MIPT's Laboratory of physics of magnetic heterostructures and spintronics for energy-saving information technologies, Prof. Anatoly Zvezdin.
Multiferroics are materials that simultaneously exhibit different ferroic orders, including magnetic, ferroelectric and/or ferroelastic. If there is an interaction between electric and magnetic subsystems in a material, a magnetoelectric (ME) effect may occur.
The magnetoelectric effect is when electric polarization occurs under the influence of an external magnetic field and magnetization occurs under the influence of an electric field. This allows an electric field to be used to control the magnetic properties of a material and a magnetic field to be used to control the electric properties. If the value of the ME effect is high (dozens or hundreds of times higher than normal), it is called a giant ME effect.
The main use of the magnetoelectric effect is in variable and static magnetic field sensors. These sensors are used in navigation systems, electric motors, and also in vehicle ignition systems. Compared to similar devices based on the Hall effect or magnetoresistance, sensors based on the ME effect are more sensitive (according to research, up to one million times more sensitive) and they are also relatively cheap to manufacture.
The ME effect offers exciting possibilities for the use of multiferroics in new types of magnetic memory, e.g. ROM -- read only memory. The ME effect could also potentially be used to create high-precision equipment for working with radiation in the microwave range, and to wirelessly transmit power to miniaturized electronic devices.
The subject of the study was bismuth ferrite (BiFeO3) -- a highly promising multiferroic that is very promising in terms of its practical applications. It is planned to be used to create ultra energy-efficient magnetoelectric memory. In addition, bismuth ferrite exhibits a magnetoelectric effect at room temperature, while in most other magnetoelectrics an ME effect of this magnitude is only observed at extremely low temperatures (below -160 degrees Celsius).
Bismuth ferrite is an antiferromagnetic, which means that the magnetic moments of its magnetic sublattices (structures formed by atoms with the same parallel spins) cancel each other out, and the total magnetization of the material is close to zero. However, the spatial arrangement of the spins forms the same cycloidal spin structure.
New system extends the lives of flying microrobots.
Call them the RoboBats. In a recent article in Science, Harvard roboticists demonstrate that their flying microrobots, nicknamed the RoboBees, can now perch during flight to save energy -- like bats, birds or butterflies.
"Many applications for small drones require them to stay in the air for extended periods," said Moritz Graule, first author of the paper who conducted this research as a student at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) and Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University. "Unfortunately, smaller drones run out of energy quickly. We want to keep them aloft longer without requiring too much additional energy." The team found inspiration in nature and simple science.
"A lot of different animals use perching to conserve energy," said Kevin Ma, a post-doc at SEAS and the Wyss Institute and coauthor. "But the methods they use to perch, like sticky adhesives or latching with talons, are inappropriate for a paperclip-size microrobot, as they either require intricate systems with moving parts or high forces for detachment."
Instead, the team turned to electrostatic adhesion -- the same basic science that causes a static-charged sock to cling to a pants leg or a balloon to stick to a wall.
When you rub a balloon on a wool sweater, the balloon becomes negatively charged. If the charged balloon is brought close to a wall, that negative charge forces some of the wall's electrons away, leaving the surface positively charged. The attraction between opposite charges then causes the balloon to stick to the wall.
"In the case of the balloon, however, the charges dissipate over time, and the balloon will eventually fall down," said Graule. "In our system, a small amount of energy is constantly supplied to maintain the attraction."
The RoboBee, pioneered at the Harvard Microrobotics Lab, uses an electrode patch and a foam mount that absorbs shock. The entire mechanism weighs 13.4 mg, bringing the total weight of the robot to about 100mg -- similar to the weight of a real bee. The robot takes off and flies normally. When the electrode patch is supplied with a charge, it can stick to almost any surface, from glass to wood to a leaf. To detach, the power supply is simply switched off.
"One of the biggest advantages of this system is that it doesn't cause destabilizing forces during disengagement, which is crucial for a robot as small and delicate as ours," said Graule.
Icy objects in our solar system have large oceans under their surfaces and here life could evolve and flourish. So says a new thesis by Jesper Lindkvist, PhD student at the Swedish Institute of Space Physics and Umeå University. The thesis will be defended on Tuesday 31 May at the Swedish Institute of Space Physics in Kiruna, Sweden.
There has long been speculation as to whether Jupiter's large, icy moon Callisto has an ocean beneath its surface. Observations of Callisto's near-space environment by instruments on board the spacecraft Galileo, which is orbiting Jupiter, lead us to believe that there is such a sub-surface ocean. Computer simulations of the space plasma interactions support this belief. "If you find an ocean beneath the surface of one moon, perhaps the same is true of other icy objects in space," says Jesper Lindkvist.
Outflow of water vapor has been detected from the surface of the dwarf planet Ceres, which is in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. This could indicate a reservoir of water, also related to a large sea beneath the surface. The spacecraft Dawn is at Ceres right now, trying to answer this question. "If someone was planning to build a future space base on one of these Solar System objects, for example to seek after signs of life, I would suggest they take an extra long ice bore and their fishing equipment," jokes Jesper Lindkvist.
The outflow of water vapor from moons and dwarf planets is similar to that we see from comets. The icy comet 67/Churyumov-Gerasimenko which rounded the sun in the summer of 2015 has been followed closely by the European spacecraft Rosetta. Measurements of the space environment round it show that the water flowing out from the comet's nucleus forms a prominent atmosphere which interacts with the constant flow of ionized particles from the sun, the so-called solar wind.
"Understanding their origin and how icy bodies evolve is one more piece of the puzzle we need to lay in order to explain the origin of our Solar System and its eventual fate," says Jesper Lindkvist.
Jesper Lindkvist comes from the town of Vidsel in Northern Sweden. He has a Masters degree in engineering physics from Luleå University of Technology.
Researchers at Tsinghua University in Beijing have created a mirror-image version of a protein that performs two of the most fundamental processes of life: copying DNA and transcribing it into RNA.
The work is a “small step” along the way to making mirror-image life forms, says molecular biologist Jack Szostak of Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts. “It’s a terrific milestone,” adds his Harvard colleague George Church, who hopes one day to create an entire mirror-image cell.
Many organic molecules are ‘chiral’: that is, they can exist in mirror-image forms that cannot be superimposed, like a right-handed and left-handed glove. But life almost always employs one version: cells use left-handed amino acids, and have DNA that twists like a right-handed screw, for instance.
Life forms created in this mirrored way would not be able to use any of the biological material of our normal world.
In their research paper, the Tsinghua researchers also present their work as an effort to investigate why life’s chirality is the way it is. This remains mysterious: it may simply be down to chance, or it could have been triggered by a fundamental asymmetry in nature.
But Steven Benner, at the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution in Alachua, Florida, says it’s unlikely that creating a mirror form of biochemical life could shed any light on this question. Almost every physical process behaves identically when viewed in a mirror. The only known exceptions — called ‘parity violations’ — lie in the realm of subatomic physics. Such tiny differences would never show up in these biochemical experiments, says Benner. (He is also interested in making DNA that can avoid unwanted degradation by natural enzymes or viruses, but rather than using mirror-DNA, he has created artificial DNA with non-natural building blocks.)
Church’s ultimate goal, to make a mirror-image cell, faces enormous challenges. In nature, RNA is translated into proteins by the ribosome, a complex molecular machine. “Reconstructing a mirror-image of the ribosome would be a daunting task,” says Zhu. Instead, Church is trying to mutate a normal ribosome so that it can handle mirror-RNA.
Church says that it is anyone’s guess as to which approach might pay off. But he notes that a growing number of researchers are working on looking-glass versions of biochemical processes. “For a while it was a non-field,” says Church. “But now it seems very vibrant.”
Sharing genetic information from millions of cancer patients around the world could revolutionize cancer prevention and care, according to a paper in Nature Medicine by the Cancer Task Team of the Global Alliance for Genomics and Health (GA4GH). Hospitals, laboratories and research facilities around the world hold huge amounts of this data from cancer patients, but it’s currently held in isolated “silos” that don’t talk to each other, according to GA4GH, a partnership between scientists, clinicians, patients, and the IT and Life Sciences industry, involving more than 400 organizations in over 40 countries. GA4GH intends to provide a common framework for the responsible, voluntary and secure sharing of patients’ clinical and genomic data.
“Imagine if we could create a searchable cancer database that allowed doctors to match patients from different parts of the world with suitable clinical trials,” said GA4GH co-chair professor Mark Lawler, a leading cancer expert fromQueen’s University Belfast. “This genetic matchmaking approach would allow us to develop personalized treatments for each individual’s cancer, precisely targeting rogue cells and improving outcomes for patients.
“This data sharing presents logistical, technical, and ethical challenges. Our paper highlights these challenges and proposes potential solutions to allow the sharing of data in a timely, responsible and effective manner. We hope this blueprint will be adopted by researchers around the world and enable a unified global approach to unlocking the value of data for enhanced patient care.”
GA4GH acknowledges that there are security issues, and has created a Security Working Group and a policy paper that documents the standards and implementation practices for protecting the privacy and security of shared genomic and clinical data.
Examples of current initiatives for clinico-genomic data-sharing include the U.S.-based Precision Medicine Initiative and the UK’s 100,000 Genomes Project, both of which have cancer as a major focus.
Australian researchers have created a “bionic spinal cord.” They claim that this device could give paralyzed people significant hope of walking again. And if that’s not enough, it could do it utilizing the power of thought and without the necessity of open brain surgery.
Developed under DARPA’s Reliable Neural-Interface Technology (RE-NET) program, the Stentrode can potentially safely expand the use of brain-machine interfaces (BMIs) in the treatment of physical disabilities and neurological disorders.
The researchers describe their “proof-of-concept results” which come from a study conducted on sheep, demonstrating high-fidelity measurements taken from the region of the brain responsible for controlling voluntary movement (called the motor cortex) with the use of the novel device which, as it happens, is just about the size of a paperclip.
Notably, the device records neural activity that has been shown in pre-clinical trials to move limbs through an exoskeleton.
The team, led by neurologist Thomas Oxley, M.D., published their study in an article in the journal Nature Biotechnology.
More than 130 scientists, lawyers, entrepreneurs, and government officials from five continents gathered at Harvard this week for an “exploratory” meeting to discuss the topic of creating genomes from scratch — including, but not limited to, those of humans, said George Church, Harvard geneticist and co-organizer of the meeting. The meeting was closed to the press, which drew the ire of prominent academics.
Synthesizing genomes involves building them from the ground up — chemically combining molecules to create DNA.Similar work by Craig Venter in 2010 created what was hailed as the first synthetic cell, a bacterium with a comparatively small genome.
In recent months, Church has been vocal in saying that the much-hyped genome-editing technology called CRISPR, which is only a few years old and which he helped develop, would soon be obsolete. Instead of changing existing genomes through CRISPR, Church has said, scientists could build exactly the genomes they want from scratch, by stringing together off-the-shelf DNA letters.
The topic is a heavy one, touching on fundamental philosophical questions of meaning and being. If we can build a synthetic genome — and eventually, a creature — from the ground up, then what does it mean to be human?
“This idea is an enormous step for the human species, and it shouldn’t be discussed only behind closed doors,” said Laurie Zoloth, a professor of religious studies, bioethics, and medical humanities at Northwestern University.
In response, she co-authored an article with Drew Endy, a bioengineering professor at Stanford University, calling for broader conversations around the research.
Church said that the meeting was originally going to be “an open meeting with lots of journalists engaged.” It was supposed to be accompanied by a peer-reviewed article on the topic. But, he said, the journal (which Church declined to identify) wanted the paper to include more information about the ethical, social, and legal components of synthesizing genomes — things that were discussed at the meeting.
Physicists at the Swiss Nanoscience Institute and the University of Basel have succeeded in measuring the very weak van der Waals forces between individual atoms for the first time. To do this, they fixed individual noble gas atoms within a molecular network and determined the interactions with a single xenon atom that they had positioned at the tip of an atomic force microscope. As expected, the forces varied according to the distance between the two atoms; but, in some cases, the forces were several times larger than theoretically calculated. These findings are reported by the international team of researchers in Nature Communications.
Van der Waals forces act between non-polar atoms and molecules. Although they are very weak in comparison to chemical bonds, they are hugely significant in nature. They play an important role in all processes relating to cohesion, adhesion, friction or condensation and are, for example, essential for a gecko's climbing skills.
Van der Waals interactions arise due to a temporary redistribution of electrons in the atoms and molecules. This results in the occasional formation of dipoles, which in turn induce a redistribution of electrons in closely neighboring molecules. Due to the formation of dipoles, the two molecules experience a mutual attraction, which is referred to as a van der Waals interaction. This only exists temporarily but is repeatedly re-formed. The individual forces are the weakest binding forces that exist in nature, but they add up to reach magnitudes that we can perceive very clearly on the macroscopic scale - as in the example of the gecko.
To measure the van der Waals forces, scientists in Basel used a low-temperature atomic force microscope with a single xenon atom on the tip. They then fixed the individual argon, krypton and xenon atoms in a molecular network. This network, which is self-organizing under certain experimental conditions, contains so-called nano-beakers of copper atoms in which the noble gas atoms are held in place like a bird egg. Only with this experimental set-up is it possible to measure the tiny forces between microscope tip and noble gas atom, as a pure metal surface would allow the noble gas atoms to slide around.
The researchers compared the measured forces with calculated values and displayed them graphically. As expected from the theoretical calculations, the measured forces fell dramatically as the distance between the atoms increased. While there was good agreement between measured and calculated curve shapes for all of the noble gases analyzed, the absolute measured forces were larger than had been expected from calculations according to the standard model. Above all for xenon, the measured forces were larger than the calculated values by a factor of up to two.
Whether you have a huge honker, a puny proboscis, or a snubbed schnoz, the shape of your nose is in your genes. Now, researchers have sniffed out five of those stretches of DNA that control nose and chin shape. The team sequenced the genomes of more than 6000 men and women in Central and South America and used photographs of the participants to categorize 14 of their facial features—from cheekbone protrusion to lip shape. Then, the scientists analyzed whether any of the features were associated with certain genes. GLI3 and PAX1, both known to be involved in cartilage growth, were linked to the breadth of a person’s nostrils;DCHS2, also related to cartilage, controlled nose pointiness; RUNX2, which drives bone development, was associated with the width of the nose bridge, the upper area of the nose; and EDAR, which has previously been linked to ear and tooth shape and hair texture, affected chin protrusion. The results, published online today in Nature Communications, may help shed light on how the human face evolved and why different ethnicities have distinct facial features. Moreover, the research could help forensic scientists reconstruct faces based on genetic samples.
A new study by an international team of researchers, affiliated with Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology (UNIST) has announced that they have succeeded for the first time in observing the structural change.
The breakthrough comes from a research, conducted by Professor Chae Un Kim (School of Natural Science) of UNIST in collaboration with researchers from Soongsil University, Cornell University, and University of Florida. Carbonic anhydrase, which is found within red blood cells, is a crucial enzyme that stabilizes carbon dioxide (CO2 ) concentrations. This enzyme catalyzes a reaction converting CO2 and water into carbonic acid, which associates into protons and bicarbonate ions.
Moreover, it is also known that carbonic anhydraseis is able to catalyze at a rate of 106 reactions per second. In the absence of this catalyst, the conversion from CO2 to bicarbonate, and vice versa, would be extremely slow and difficult.
One of the important functions of the enzyme in humans is to adjust the acidity of the chemical environment to prevent damage to the body, as well as to help transport carbon dioxide out from tissue cells to the lungs. Although carbonic anhydrase performs a lot of beneficial functions, defects in the enzyme are responsible for developing diseases, such as glaucoma, acidemia, or osteopetrosis.
Prof. Kim, the lead researcher of the study states, "The reaction rate of carbonic anhydrase is one of the fastest of all enzymes." He continues, "Due to the rapid movement of proteins, direct observation for such movement has been extremely difficult to obtain, protein scientists say."
In this study, Prof. Kim's team used their own method of "High-pressure Crycooling" and "X-ray Crystallography" to capture the gaseous carbon dioxide in crystals of carbonic anhydrase and follow the sequential structure changes as the carbon dioxide is released. The results of the study will not only greatly contribute to the future biomedical research and new drug development, but will also help make carbon capture more economic.
According to Prof. Kim of UNIST, "This study also shows technical methods that may be applicable to other enzymes that bind and react to low-molecular weight substrates, such as CO2 and NO2 ."
During the rainy season in the Orinoco Llanos of Columbia and Venezuela, an odd landscape feature appears in places: mounds of grassy plants, as big as five meters across and two meters tall, surrounded by water. Traversing this landscape, called surales, requires either hopping from mound to mound or trudging through the boggy bits in between.
Locals and scientists have generally agreed that some kind of earthworm creates the mounds, but what species and how it does so has been a mystery. Now Anne Zangerlé of the Braunschweig University of Technology in Germany and colleagues report that they’ve found the culprit — giant Andiorrhinus earthworms, which can grow to a meter in length as juveniles. And the mounds themselves, the team reports May 11 in PLOS ONE, are actually made mostly of earthworm poop.
Zangerlé and her colleagues used Google Earth images to locate surales landscapes, finding that they come in the shape of both mounds and labyrinths. Leaving the complex labyrinths for a future study, the team studied the mounds and the lands on which they were found in both the rainy and dry seasons. They characterized the soil and the plants and worms living in and on the mounds. And then they pieced all of that information together to come up with a scenario that they think explains the construction of the mounds.
After nearly a half trillion tries, a rare event was seen that might solve an evolutionary puzzle about noncoding sequences of DNA in genomes and address speciation and the cause of diseases like cancer.
For a long time, scientists have known that much of the DNA within any given organism’s genome does not code for functional molecules or protein. However, recent research has found that these genetic sequences, misnamed “junk” DNA in the past, often do have functional significance. These introns are no exception. Now known to play a role in gene expression, introns are the portion of gene sequences that are removed or spliced out of RNA before genes are translated into protein. When eukaryotes first diverged from bacteria, there was a massive invasion of introns into the genome. All living eukaryotes — from yeast to mammals — share this common ancestor, and whereas simple organisms such as yeast have eliminated most of their introns, organisms such as mammals have considerably expanded their intron inventory. Humans have more than 200,000 introns that take up about 40 percent of the genome.
In a current paper, Stevens and co-author Sujin Lee, a former graduate student in cellular and molecular biology at UT Austin, used a new reporter assay to directly detect the loss and gain of introns in budding yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae). The team tested nearly a half trillion yeast and found only two instances in which an intron was added to a new gene. The proposed mechanism for this addition is a reversal of a splicing reaction.
Normally, to make proteins, RNA is read from the instructions in DNA, and the introns are spliced out. But in these two instances, the cell allowed the spliced out introns to make it back into a different RNA and was recombined back into the genome, thus creating a permanent genetic change. These are called intron gains, and if these accumulate over time, they can contribute to the development of new species as well as human disease.
“We showed in this project that introns continue to be gained, although infrequently at any point in time,” says Stevens. “But can introns drive evolution? If these sequences give organisms a selective advantage and become fixed in a population, others have shown that it can be a major factor in the creation of new species.”
These evolutionary advances come at a cost, however, because diseases such as cancer correlate with the improper removal of introns from RNA. Stevens adds, “We are continuing this work to further understand how this process impacts our genetic history, our future, and the prospects of curing disease.”
Our bodies are constantly and successfully fighting off the development of cells that lead to tumors - but when there is disruption to this process cancer is free to develop.
Walter and Eliza Hall Institute researchers, led by Dr Sandra Nicholson and Dr Nicholas Huntington, together with colleagues from the Queensland Institute of Medical Research, are investigating ways to 'switch on' our Natural Killer (NK) cells.
Natural Killer cells exist to detect and then destroy any deviant cells in our bodies before those cells go on to develop into tumors or before infection spreads, Dr Nicholson said. "Natural Killer cells are a key part of our immune system that locate other cells posing a danger to health either because they are infected or because they are becoming a cancer cell," she said. However, it is known that abnormal cells sometimes escape the immune system and develop into a cancer.
The researchers identified a protein 'brake' within Natural Killer cells that controls their ability to destroy their target tumor cells.
In their paper published today in Nature Immunology, they showed that when the brake was removed in an experimental model, the NK cells were better able to protect the body against metastatic melanoma.
Natural Killer cells rely on a growth factor called Interleukin 15 (IL15) to activate. Dr Nicholson and Dr Huntington's research has shown that an inhibitor protein made inside the Natural Killer cells limits the ability of the NK cell to respond to IL15 and therefore kill cancer cells. By identifying for the first time how this protein inhibits NK cell responses, they now hope that a drug can be developed that will improve the NK cells' response to this growth factor and help patients fight cancer with their own immune system. "This is about learning how to activate the NK cells of the individual patient and boost their immune system to tackle the disease," Dr Huntington said.
Ed Hawkins, a climate scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Science at the University of Reading, devised the spiral animation to show how global average surface temperatures are increasing relative to the average temperature during preindustrial times.
When a sperm and an egg cell merge a new life begins. This is the case in humans and in animals, but in principle also in plants. A German-Israeli team led by the biologists Professor Ralf Reski from Freiburg and Professor Nir Ohad from Tel-Aviv has discovered a gene trigger in the moss Physcomitrella patens which leads to offspring without fertilization. The researchers assume that this mechanism is conserved in evolution and holds the key to answer fundamental questions in biology. The study is published in the journal “Nature Plants”.
„Just like humans and animals, mosses possess egg cells and motile sperm. That is why they are particularly well-suited to answer fundamental questions in biology”, Reski says. After fusion of sperm and egg cell, a network of genes is activated. That leads to the development of an embryo which grows into a new living being. Until now it was unclear whether a central genetic switch for this gene activation exists. In their latest publication the team describes the gene BELL1 as a master regulator for the formation of embryos and their development in Physcomitrella. After the researchers activated this gene in the plants by genetic engineering, embryos developed spontaneously on a specific cell type. These embryos grew to fully functional moss sporophytes. These spore capsules could even form spores, which grew into new moss plants. Thus, the team identified BELL1 as a master regulator for embryo development in mosses.
The protein encoded by this gene belongs to the class of so-called homeobox transcription factors. Similar homeotic genes are also present in humans and animals, where they also control pivotal developmental processes. Whether a congener of BELL1 is a master regulator of embryo development in humans is not yet known. “Our results are important beyond mosses”, Reski says. “On the one hand they can explain how algae developed into land plants and thus shaped our current ecosystems. Secondly, they may help to revive the concept of genetic master regulators in the development of plants, animals and humans.” Ohad explains, “Moreover, our results may help to modernize agriculture through the creation of genetically identical offspring from high-yielding crop plants. In seed plants such offsprings are formed by parthenogenesis or apomixis.”
Ralf Reski from the University of Freiburg is a specialist in moss research and has helped to develop Physcomitrella as a model organism for biology and biotechnology at a world-wide scale. Nir Ohad from Tel-Aviv University is a specialist in the epigenetic regulation of reproductive development. He helped to identify the first BELL genes in seed plants about 20 years ago as member of a team led by Professor Robert Fischer from UC Berkeley. Research was supported by the German-Israeli Foundation GIF, the Freiburg Excellence Cluster BIOSS and the Freiburg Institute for Advanced Studies.
Clutter is a special challenge for robots, but new Carnegie Mellon University software is helping robots cope, whether they're beating a path across the Moon or grabbing a milk jug from the back of the refrigerator.
The software not only helped a robot deal efficiently with clutter, it surprisingly revealed the robot's creativity in solving problems.
"It was exploiting sort of superhuman capabilities," Siddhartha Srinivasa, associate professor of robotics, said of his lab's two-armed mobile robot, the Home Exploring Robot Butler, or HERB. "The robot's wrist has a 270-degree range, which led to behaviors we didn't expect. Sometimes, we're blinded by our own anthropomorphism." In one case, the robot used the crook of its arm to cradle an object to be moved. "We never taught it that," Srinivasa added.
The rearrangement planner software was developed in Srinivasa's lab by Jennifer King, a Ph.D. student in robotics, and Marco Cognetti, a Ph.D. student at Sapienza University of Rome who spent six months in Srinivasa's lab. They will present their findings May 19 at the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation in Stockholm, Sweden. In addition to HERB, the software was tested on NASA's KRex robot, which is being designed to traverse the lunar surface. While HERB focused on clutter typical of a home, KRex used the software to find traversable paths across an obstacle-filled landscape while pushing an object.
Robots are adept at "pick-and-place" (P&P) processes, picking up an object in a specified place and putting it down at another specified place. Srinivasa said this has great applications in places where clutter isn't a problem, such as factory production lines. But that's not what robots encounter when they land on distant planets or, when "helpmate" robots eventually land in people's homes.
P&P simply doesn't scale up in a world full of clutter. When a person reaches for a milk carton in a refrigerator, he doesn't necessarily move every other item out of the way. Rather, a person might move an item or two, while shoving others out of the way as the carton is pulled out.
The rearrangement planner automatically finds a balance between the two strategies, Srinivasa said, based on the robot's progress on its task. The robot is programmed to understand the basic physics of its world, so it has some idea of what can be pushed, lifted or stepped on. And it can be taught to pay attention to items that might be valuable or delicate, in case it must extricate a bull from a china shop.
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