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Scooped by Dr. Stefan Gruenwald!

Oral flora composition may diagnose pancreatic cancer

Oral flora composition may diagnose pancreatic cancer | Amazing Science |

Patients with pancreatic cancer have a different and distinct profile of specific bacteria in their saliva compared to healthy controls and even patients with other cancers or pancreatic diseases, according to research presented today at the annual meeting of the American Society for Microbiology. These findings could form the basis for a test to diagnose the disease in its early stages.

"Our studies suggest that ratios of particular types of bacteria found in saliva may be indicative of pancreatic cancer," says Pedro Torres of San Diego State University who presented the research.

In the United States, approximately 40,000 people die every year due to pancreatic adenocarcinoma, making it the fourth leading cause of cancer related death. Patients diagnosed in the early stages of pancreatic cancer have a 5-year survival rate of 21.5%. Unfortunately symptoms do not appear until after the cancer has become untreatable in the vast majority of cases, says Torres.

In the study, Torres and his colleagues compared the diversity of saliva bacteria across 131 patients, 63 female and 68 male, being treated at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) Moores Cancer Center. Of these patients, 14 had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, 13 with pancreatic disease, 22 with other forms of cancer and 10 disease free. Results showed that patients diagnosed with pancreatic cancer had higher levels of two particular oral bacteria, Leptotrichia and Campylobacter, when compared to any other healthy or diseased state including non-cancerous pancreatic disease. Those with pancreatic cancer also had lower levels of Streptococcus, Treponema and Veillonella.

"Our results suggest the presence of a consistently distinct microbial profile for pancreatic cancer," says Torres. "We may be able to detect pancreatic cancer at its early stages by taking individuals' saliva and looking at the ratios of these bacteria.

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Germany briefly gets 75% of total energy from renewable, Earthfriendly sources

Germany briefly gets 75% of total energy from renewable, Earthfriendly sources | Amazing Science |

Germany, Europe’s fourth largest economy, hit a milestone in human and technological progress over the weekend of May 10-11, 2014, when it produced historic levels of its energy from renewable, Earth-friendly sources.

According to, at some time on May 11, fully 75 percent of Germany's electrical demand was met by the output from the renewable resources of wind and solar power. The 75 percent figure is a result of a particularly sunny and windy weekend in Germany. So far this year, 27 percent of Germany's energy needs have been met from these sources.

ThinkProgress reports that such astounding figures are the result of a German initiative known as Energiewende, to derive 80 percent of their energy needs from renewable resources by 2050.

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Scientists discover how to turn light into matter after 80-year quest

Scientists discover how to turn light into matter after 80-year quest | Amazing Science |

Imperial College London physicists have discovered how to create matter from light - a feat thought impossible when the idea was first theorized 80 years ago.

In just one day over several cups of coffee in a tiny office in Imperial's Blackett Physics Laboratory, three physicists worked out a relatively simple way to physically prove a theory first devised by scientists Breit and Wheeler in 1934.

Breit and Wheeler suggested that it should be possible to turn light into matter by smashing together only two particles of light (photons), to create an electron and a positron – the simplest method of turning light into matter ever predicted. The calculation was found to be theoretically sound but Breit and Wheeler said that they never expected anybody to physically demonstrate their prediction. It has never been observed in the laboratory and past experiments to test it have required the addition of massive high-energy particles.

The new research, published in Nature Photonics, shows for the first time how Breit and Wheeler's theory could be proven in practice. This 'photon-photon collider', which would convert light directly into matter using technology that is already available, would be a new type of high-energy physics experiment. This experiment would recreate a process that was important in the first 100 seconds of the universe and that is also seen in gamma ray bursts, which are the biggest explosions in the universe and one of physics' greatest unsolved mysteries.

The scientists had been investigating unrelated problems in fusion energy when they realised what they were working on could be applied to the Breit-Wheeler theory. The breakthrough was achieved in collaboration with a fellow theoretical physicist from the Max Planck Institute for Nuclear Physics, who happened to be visiting Imperial.

Demonstrating the Breit-Wheeler theory would provide the final jigsaw piece of a physics puzzle which describes the simplest ways in which light and matter interact (see image in notes to editors). The six other pieces in that puzzle, including Dirac's 1930 theory on the annihilation of electrons and positrons and Einstein's 1905 theory on the photoelectric effect, are all associated with Nobel Prize-winning research.

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Cicades Inherit Microbes From Male’s Sperm

Cicades Inherit Microbes From Male’s Sperm | Amazing Science |

The green rice leafhopper is never alone. When a female’s egg and a male’s sperm fuse into a new cell, that cell is already infected with bacteria. As the newly conceived leafhopper grows from one cell into millions, its internal bacteria—its endosymbionts—go along for the ride. Right from the start, the leafhopper isn’t an individual in its own right, but a collection of animal and microbes that live together.

Many insects and other animals inherit endosymbionts from their parents, but almost all of them do so from their mothers. There’s good reason for this. An egg cell is big. Its central nucleus, which contains its DNA, is surrounded by a spacious and roomy cytoplasm, which can house lots of bacteria. But a sperm cell has no cytoplasm, and its tiny head is all nucleus. This streamlined shape is good for swimming, but it’s terrible for packaging bacterial heirlooms. That’s why males almost never pass on endosymbionts to their kids, while females often do. Sperm just isn’t very good packing material.

But try telling that to the green rice leafhopper. This small green bug is a serious pests of rice plants in East Asia, and its cells are filled with at least three species of bacteria. And one of them—Rickettsia—can infect the insect’s sperm.

Kenji Watanabe and Hiroaki Noda from the National Institute of Agrobiological Sciences in Japan found that almost every one of the leafhopper’s sperm cells contains several copies of Rickettsia, with up to 23 microbes per head. The team have no idea how the bacteria gain entry, or why their presence doesn’t seem to harm or disable the sperm in any way. But they do know that if these infected sperm fertilise eggs, they can pass their copies of Rickettsia into the next generation.

This unique ability to transmit microbes via sperm could completely change the usual relationship between the insects and the bacteria. These partnerships are fairly straightforward if microbes are only passed down the maternal line. Every individual inherits a single strain of microbe, and they co-evolve in neat tandem. Buchnera, for example, lives inside the cells of aphids, and has been co-evolving with them for over 150 million years. If you draw the family tree ofBuchnera strains, it would look almost identical to the family tree of their aphid hosts.

But in the leafhopper, both males and females can pass Rickettsia to their offspring, so each individual could end up with different bacterial strains. “Co-infections are likely to introduce more conflict with the host” as strains compete with each other, says Nancy Moran from the University of Texas in Austin. Conflicts between harmless bacteria can potentially harm their hosts, as the adaptations that allow one microbe to best another can sometimes allow them to cause disease. If that’s true here, Rickettsia may flip from being a harmless (or even beneficial) partner into an enemy.

Jack Werren from Rochester University, who studies Wolbachia, says that the Japanese team found irrefutable evidence for sperm transmission, but their study also raises many questions. How doesRickettsia function inside the nucleus? And with its host’s DNA within easy reach, could it be manipulating the leafhopper’s genes?

And what’s Rickettsia doing inside its host? Is it a benign parasite, or is it actually helpful? Many endosymbionts provide their hosts with nutrients or defend them against parasites and diseases. Aphids, for example, cannot survive without BuchneraRickettsia, however, seems to be dispensable. When Watanabe and Noda cured the leafhoppers of their infections, the adult insects seemed fine.

But as Werren points out, the team only studied small numbers of the insects in their laboratory. It’s possible that Rickettsia might help the leafhoppers by protecting them from parasites, or even by detoxifying pesticides in their environment—benefits that would only reveal themselves in the wild.

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Voids & Supervoids in the Universe

Voids & Supervoids in the Universe | Amazing Science |

Cosmic voids, and supervoids, are large volumes of space that are devoid of matter.  This includes normal matter, in the form of galaxies, and dark matter.  Initially, astronomers were not sure if the voids contained dark matter, even though there were no galaxies, but recent observations show that the halos of dark matter are not present.  The filamentary structure of galactic superclusters surrounds the voids.  While space is mostly empty, voids are large volumes, tens of megaparsecs across.  The largest confirmed supervoids are about 100 Mpc (325 million light-years) or more across .  The larger known voids include the Boötes Supervoid, and the Northern and Southern Local Supervoids.  To explain the cold spot in the cosmic microwave background (CMB), some astronomers propose a huge supervoid, tentatively dubbed the Eridanus or Great supervoid.  The Capricornus void is another disputed void, but would be around 230 Mpc across.  This link has some of the latest information on cosmic voids.

The Local Void is very large at approximately 60 Mpc long, and is located within the Virgo Supercluster.  Our own Local Cluster of galaxies lies on the edge of the void.  The dwarf galaxy Eso 461-36 lies within the void, but appears to be moving towards the boundary at around 216 km/second (135 miles/sec).  In addition, the Milky Way has been found to have three main components to its motion; two are attractive, towards the "great Attractor" at 455 km/second and the Virgo Cluster at 185 km/second, and one repulsive, away from the local void at approximately 260 km/second.

The center of the Boötes void, also known as the Great Void, is about 215 Mpc away from the Milky Way.  It is a near spherical region of space, some 75 to 100 Mpc across.  It  contains a much lower density of galaxies than expected, and to date, only about 60 galaxies have been found in the void, although there are probably more dwarf galaxies not yet detected.  Consider that the distance to our nearest large galaxy, Andromeda, is only 1% the diameter of the Boötes void, you would reasonably expect to find many more galaxies in that volume of space.  Assuming an average galaxy spacing of 10 million light-years, four times the distance to Andromeda, there would be approximately 2,000 galaxies in a volume of space the size of the Boötes void.  It is interesting in that the galaxies found are in a "tube" like area that runs through the void, leading to the hypothesis that it formed as the merger of a number of smaller voids.  The astronomer Greg Aldering has said, “If the Milky Way had been in the center of the Boötes void, we wouldn’t have known there were other galaxies until the 1960s” such is the low density.  However, the galaxies that have been found are brighter, on the average, than galaxies found outside of voids, which is perplexing.

The Eridanus Supervoid, or Great Void, is conjectural, and has been suggested as a way to explain the "cold spot" in the cosmic microwave background radiation, or CMB. This would be an extraordinarily large region of the universe, at least 150 Mpc or 500 million light-years across, and possibly twice this figure.  It is also very distant at between 1.8 Gpc and 3 Gpc (6 to 10 billion light-years).  Many astronomers and cosmologists do not accept the supervoid theory for the aberration in the CMB, but many of the alternatives are even more astounding including cosmic textures and parallel universes.  So the jury remains out on this one.

The Taurus Void is circular, about 30 Mpc across, and adjacent to the Perseus-Pisces Supercluster.  A few galaxies have been found inside it including UGC 2627 and UGC 2629 which are approximately 185 million light years away.

Keith Wayne Brown's curator insight, May 18, 2014 10:26 AM

The  emptiness of empty 

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Robobees: Harvard Project Funds The Engineering Of Robotic Bees Soon To Be In Flight

Robobees: Harvard Project Funds The Engineering Of Robotic Bees Soon To Be In Flight | Amazing Science |

With the alarming decline in the honey bee population sweeping our globe, fear of the multi-billion dollar crop industry collapsing has been on many people’s minds. To tackle this issue, Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences has been working with staff from the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology and Northeastern University’s Department of Biology to develop robot bees. And according to a new video just released, these insectoid automatons have already taken flight.

The collaborators envision that the Nature-inspired research could lead to a greater understanding of how to artificially mimic the collective behavior and “intelligence” of a bee colony; foster novel methods for designing and building an electronic surrogate nervous system able to deftly sense and adapt to changing environments; and advance work on the construction of small-scale flying mechanical devices.

More broadly, the scientists anticipate the devices will open up a wide range of discoveries and practical innovations, advancing fields ranging from entomology and developmental biology to amorphous computing and electrical engineering.

Eli Levine's curator insight, May 16, 2014 2:14 PM

If we're able to figure out how to artificially mimic bee colonies, imagine what we could do with our human societies to improve effectiveness, efficiency and to clear away our delusions and non-self preservationist behavior (in terms of the larger social self that we're all apart of).


Imagine a world where we have coordination and cooperation, rather than competition and violence.  Imagine a world where we work to solve common problems that exist on the various scales of human society, from local to global. 


Imagine if we're able to eliminate the petty, chimpish aspects of our brains and psychology, to live happier, healthier lives as a more survivable and adaptable species.


Just think of the possibilities that we could then do, to advance both the universe and ourselves safely (because, if we're able to perceive dangers accurately, why should we advance in such dangerous fashions?)


I may not be down for the first generation of implants.  But I would be down for the fourth, fifth or sixth generation.


That's just me.


Think about it.

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Novel Imaging Technology Catches Cancer In The Act

Novel Imaging Technology Catches Cancer In The Act | Amazing Science |

Methods for monitoring tumor cells in living animals are transforming our view of cancer.

Mikala Egeblad was blown away when she made her first action film of tumour cells inside live mice. Until then, she had studied samples on microscope slides, where the cells sat still, frozen in time. But seeing them in a living animal brought the cells to life. “You turn on the microscope and look in the live mouse and suddenly these same cells are running around like crazy,” says Egeblad, a cancer researcher at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York. “It really changed my thinking.”

Increasingly, cancer researchers are embracing the chance to spy on individual tumour cells in their native environment. In studies of static tissue cultures, investigators have to infer what cancer and other cells surrounding the tumour might be doing, and how they might be interacting. Tracking cancer in live animals over time — an approach called intravital imaging — puts those interactions on display, and allows biologists to zoom in on the small number of dangerous cells within a tumour that drive the disease or resist treatment.

The technique is young, and labs are still working out how best to analyse the gigabytes of video data it generates. But the increasing use of intravital imaging over the past decade has already helped researchers to piece together timelines for key cellular and molecular events, such as the process by which tumour cells sneak into blood vessels. Such clues have yielded new hypotheses about how cancers grow, spread and resist treatment — information that could, for example, eventually enable drug developers to understand why some cancer cells do not succumb to therapy.

And in a video-obsessed culture, the imaging technique holds instant appeal. “When we show our movies, people fall out of their seats when they see how dynamic a tumour lesion can be,” says Peter Friedl at Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands. “It's a change in perception.”

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IBM Research discovers a new class of polymers

IBM Research discovers a new class of polymers | Amazing Science |

IBM Research scientists have discovered a new class of polymer materials that demonstrate resistance to cracking, strength higher than bone, and the ability to reform to their original shape (self-heal) and original material.

These materials can also be transformed into new polymer structures to further bolster their strength by 50%, making them ultra-strong and lightweight, and could result in cheaper, lighter, stronger and recyclable materials.

The finding combines a number of attributes, each achieved in separate studies by various researchers, as reported by KurzweilAI.

The discovery could transform manufacturing and fabrication in the fields of transportation, aerospace, and microelectronics, the scientists say.

This research was published in the journal Science, with collaborators from UC BerkeleyEindhoven University of Technology, and King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST), Saudi Arabia.

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Science explains why octopus arms don't stick together

Science explains why octopus arms don't stick together | Amazing Science |

Octopus arms can grab onto just about any smooth surface with ease and, for the most part, they do so without communicating their location to the brain. This ability has turned them into darlings of the robotics industry, which has made numerous attempts to reproduce their underwater grasping abilities. Yet, despite all the work that has gone into deciphering the mechanics of octopus suckers, researchers have never asked one seemingly glaring question: how do octopuses avoid getting their suckers stuck to their own skin if they have no idea where their arms are most of the time?

According to a new study published today in Current Biology, the answer is chemical. Through a series of experiments, researchers were able to figure out that octopuses produce molecules in their skin that prevent their arms from getting tangled. Moreover, under certain conditions, these animals are able to stop those molecules from doing their thing in order to grasp other octopuses. "Everybody knew the lack of knowledge in octopus arms, but nobody wanted to investigate this," says Guy Levy, a neuroscientist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a co-author of the study. "Now we know that they have a built-in mechanism that prevents them from grabbing octopus skin."

To study this phenomenon, the researchers came up with a number of novel experiments, most of which involved watching amputated octopus arms grab various objects. "An octopus arm is lively for more than an hour after amputation," Levy says, and they retain the ability to attach to "just about anything" during that period. But even when separated from the rest of its body, octopus arms are still unable to grasp fresh octopus skin — whether it's attached to an octopus or not. "We thought that the reason might be electrical," Levy says, but the amputated arms had no trouble grabbing onto skinned octopus arms, so an electrical mechanism seemed unlikely.

In another experiment, the researchers demonstrated that the mechanism wasn't texture or electricity related because the amputated arms couldn't grab "reconstructed skin" that had been broken down to its constituent molecules and embedded in a gel. Thus, only one possibility remained: a chemical one. Unfortunately, there's still a lot that the researchers don't know. "We do not know which molecules are involved," Levy says, "but we do know that molecules in the skin are sensed in the suckers and this inhibits the attachment behavior." This, the researchers think, is a "built-in program" that stays on after the arms are amputated. When an arm is still attached to its owner, however, "the brain can decide to cancel the program and force the arm to grab the skin."

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Autodesk Builds Its Own Real Virus, Based on Systems Biology

Autodesk Builds Its Own Real Virus, Based on Systems Biology | Amazing Science |


Autodesk, a company which develops design software, produced a synthetic Phi-X174 bacteriophage, a virus that infects E. coli bacteria but is totally benign for humans. 

The effort was a sort of scientific homage to the work of the J. Craig Venter Institute, which first produced the self-replicating synthetic virus back in 2003, following a more than five-year research effort. In Autodesk’s case, it took a little more than two weeks and about $1,000.

That achievement says a lot about how far the science of synthetic biology has come — and a lot about where Autodesk is going.

Via Marko Dolinar
Samuel Viana's curator insight, May 23, 2014 12:56 PM
A AutoDesk, criadora do software de modelação AutoCAD, criou o seu primeiro vírus. Mas não é um vírus informático, como à primeira vista possa parecer, mas sim biológico, já que a Autodesk também se lançou neste campo de pesquisa já lá vão dez anos. Este vírus é capaz de infectar a "clássica" bactéria-modelo E. coli.
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A single female-specific piRNA is the primary determiner of sex in the silkworm

A single female-specific piRNA is the primary determiner of sex in the silkworm | Amazing Science |

The silkworm Bombyx mori uses a WZ sex determination system that is analogous to the one found in birds and some reptiles. In this system, males have two Z sex chromosomes, whereas females have Z and W sex chromosomes. The silkworm W chromosome has a dominant role in female determination12, suggesting the existence of a dominant feminizing gene in this chromosome. However, the W chromosome is almost fully occupied by transposable element sequences345, and no functional protein-coding gene has been identified so far. Female-enriched PIWI-interacting RNAs (piRNAs) are the only known transcripts that are produced from the sex-determining region of the W chromosome6, but the function(s) of these piRNAs are unknown. A team of scientists now show that a W-chromosome-derived, female-specific piRNA is the feminizing factor of B. mori. This piRNA is produced from a piRNA precursor which was named FemInhibition of Fem-derived piRNA-mediated signalling in female embryos led to the production of the male-specific splice variants of B. mori doublesex (Bmdsx), a gene which acts at the downstream end of the sex differentiation cascade78. A target gene of Fem-derived piRNA was identified on the Z chromosome of B. mori. This gene, named Masc, encodes a CCCH-type zinc finger protein. The research team was able to show that the silencing of Masc messenger RNA by Fem piRNA is required for the production of female-specific isoforms of Bmdsx in female embryos, and that Masc protein controls both dosage compensation and masculinization in male embryos. This study demonstrates that a single small RNA that is responsible for primary sex determination in the WZ sex determination system.

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Magnetar pulsars have a magnetic field 100 trillion fold stronger than Earth

Magnetar pulsars have a magnetic field 100 trillion fold stronger than Earth | Amazing Science |

New findings reveal the makings of magnetars. Astronomers have figured out how to make the universe’s most powerful magnet. All you need is two massive stars orbiting close to each other so that one swipes gas from the other, causing the thief to spin so quickly that its magnetic field dwarfs that of Earth by 100 trillion-fold. The finding offers fresh insight into how some of the galaxy's smallest but most extraordinary stars arise.

Magnetars are a special breed of pulsars, which are fast-spinning neutron stars that form when a massive star explodes as a supernova: The star's outer layers shoot off into space, while its core collapses to become the pulsar. Magnetars are as rare as they are extraordinary. Known pulsars number in the thousands; known magnetars, only a couple of dozen.

Astronomer Simon Clark of the Open University in Milton Keynes, U.K., and his colleagues observed a young star cluster named Westerlund 1, which sports one of the few known magnetars. The cluster is only 5 million years old and lies 16,000 light-years from Earth in Ara, a constellation just south of Scorpius.

The astronomers identified a peculiar blue supergiant—a star much hotter and more luminous than the sun—that they believe once orbited the star that later became the magnetar. Named Westerlund 1-5, the blue supergiant dumped large amounts of gas onto its partner, speeding up its spin the way falling water makes a water wheel twirl. As Clark's team reports online this week in Astronomy & Astrophysicsthis spin-up amplified the star's magnetic field so that when it exploded and collapsed, it became a magnetar rather than an ordinary pulsar.

Furthermore, the blue supergiant saved its partner from a bleak fate. The premagnetar star was so massive that it should have collapsed into a black hole. But before it exploded, it began to expand, as aging stars do, and its partner grabbed enough gas back that the premagnetar star slimmed down, becoming a magnetar rather than a black hole. This removal of material also kept the premagnetar star spinning fast; normally, expanding stars spin more slowly, just as spinning ice skaters do when they extend their arms.

The evidence? First, the blue supergiant is racing away from the cluster, suggesting that another star recently kicked it away when it exploded. Second, the blue supergiant has odd abundances of carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen.

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Should Smallpox’s Last Two Samples Be Destroyed Or Preserved To Best Safeguard Humanity?

Should Smallpox’s Last Two Samples Be Destroyed Or Preserved To Best Safeguard Humanity? | Amazing Science |

Although the world hasn’t seen a case of smallpox in over 30 years, it isn’t quite gone yet. Two vials of the deadly virus remain: one in the United States and the other over 5,000 miles away in Russia. Experts around the world agree that these vials need to be destroyed at some point, but some believe that, for now, humanity is safer with the vials intact. Others insist their destruction is well overdue. The fate of the vials will be decided at an upcoming World Health Assembly meeting later this month.

Smallpox was arguably one of the most deadly diseases to ever exist. It is estimated to have killed up to 500 million people in the 20th century. Throughout time, it has probably killed more people than all other infectious diseases combined. By 1980, smallpox was eradicated, and today it remains the only disease to have been eliminated by the World Health Organization (WHO).

An opinion piece on the fate of the last two remaining strains of smallpox was released on PLoS Pathogens Thursday. In it, experts explain how research with the live smallpox virus is “not yet finished.” If the virus were to reappear, some researchers believe humanity is not prepared to fight it off. Although there is a vaccine against smallpox, it is in limited supply. This vaccine is also known to have a high rate of adverse and sometimes severe side effects. It can infect the brain and cause permanent damage. The International Business Times reports that the WHO's original goals for a newer and safer vaccine, fully licensed antiviral drugs, and better diagnostics are still underway. The researchers believe that further screening and using new approaches such as genomics or proteomics can help enhance man’s preparedness against a possible smallpox resurgence.

So far, there have been two new antivirals that seem promising in treating smallpox. Neither has been licensed for use yet, and researchers feel they need live samples of the virus to continue their research. “Variola is unusual in that it is known to be a sole human pathogen, the viral and host factors responsible for this human-specific tropism remain essentially unknown to this day,” the researcher explained, IBT reported. Live samples of smallpox are also used to help understand other viruses and develop treatments for them.

Advances in synthetic biology mean that one day it may be possible to create smallpox from scratch. “The synthetic biology adds a new wrinkle to it. We now aren’t as sure that our countermeasures are going to be as effective as we’d though even five years ago,” Jimmy Kolker, Health and Human Services assistant secretary for global affairs told The Associated Press. Even if all traces of smallpox are essentially eliminated, there is still no saying that the virus won’t reappear again in the future. The researchers believe further observation of the living virus can help “to better respond to any future emergency situation resulting from a smallpox appearance.”

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Thousands of bacteria have hitchhiked to Mars on the Curiosity Rover

Thousands of bacteria have hitchhiked to Mars on the Curiosity Rover | Amazing Science |

Bacteria found on the Curiosity rover reveal the types of microorganisms that spacecrafts carry.

Dozens of microbial species may have accompanied the Curiosity rover to Mars, where it landed in August 2012. The stowaways withstood spacecraft cleaning methods before the rover's launch, although no one knows for sure whether the bacteria survived the inter-planetary ride.

A study that identified 377 strains found that a surprising number resist extreme temperatures and damage caused by ultraviolet-C radiation, the most potentially harmful type. The results, presented today at the annual meeting of the American Society for Microbiology, are a first step towards elucidating how certain bacteria might survive decontamination and space flight.

The work tells scientists a lot “about the kind of microbes that could be space explorers”, says evolutionary ecologist John Rummel of East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina, who was not involved in the research.

Swabs of Curiosity’s surfaces before it was launched, including its heat shield and flight system, revealed 65 species of bacteria. Most were related to the genus Bacillus. In the lab, scientists exposed the microbes to desiccation, UV exposure, cold and pH extremes. Nearly 11% of the 377 strains survived more than one of these severe conditions. Thirty-one per cent of the resistant bacteria did not form tough, protective spore coats; the researchers suspect that they used other biochemical means of protection, such as metabolic changes.

“When we embarked on these studies there wasn’t anything known about the organisms in this collection,” says microbiologist Stephanie Smith of the University of Idaho in Moscow, who is the lead author on the work. The group now plans to study how the most resilient of the identified bacteria survive in extreme environments.

Identifying resilient microbial species helps to gauge actual levels of contamination on such spacecraft. Planetary scientists worry that hitchhiking microbes could, in principle, contaminate Mars soil, or possibly taint rock samples collected as part of future missions — hence providing false signs of life on the red planet.

Although spacecraft go through multiple cleaning steps to ensure that they bear no biological contaminants, previous reports suggest that Curiosity project developers did not follow these planetary protection protocols to the letter. The regulations are a safeguard; whether microbes can tolerate conditions on the surface of Mars is still unknown.

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Human Antibodies Given Sharklike Armor to Fight Disease

Human Antibodies Given Sharklike Armor to Fight Disease | Amazing Science |

Therapeutic antibodies are potent tools for cancer diagnosis and treatment. The trouble has been that human antibodies are rather delicate. When drug companies make them, a lot break apart. Shark antibodies, in contrast, are robust. Now chemists have figured out the sources of that strength–some extra features in the proteins that work like Super Glue to keep them together. Building upon our shared and ancient evolutionary heritage, scientists have engineered those shark features into human antibodies and made cells produce them. More intact antibodies come out of these cells, and those antibodies withstand more damage.

“We found that a lot more of these antibodies passed through the cell’s quality control checkpoints,“ says Linda Hendershot, a biologist at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Tennessee and one of the scientists behind the new research, published online May 15 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The shark-human connection first took shape at the Technical University of Munich, where chemists Matthias Feige, Johannes Buchner and several colleagues began exploring shark antibody durability. This strength was somewhat remarkable because while a shark swims in the sea, its antibodies are swimming in a sea of urea. Urea is a substance famous for breaking down proteins. Yet sharks need lots of it because the substance keeps shark cells from losing water and becoming dehydrated. So antibodies need to resist this necessary evil.

The way they resist breakdown turned out to be part of their structure. The antibodies, which are long chains, fold and twist. The researchers made molecular images of shark antibodies called immunoglobulin new antigen receptors, and learned the proteins have two regions that act like strong glue, holding different segments together.

One region, Hendershot says, is known as a “salt bridge,” and it has a positive electrical charge at one end and a negative at the other. The opposites attract, like magnets, keeping the antibody from unfolding. The other region, Feige says, is a large water-repellent group of amino acids called a core. As they move away from water outside the antibody and towards one another, the acids exert more force holding the antibody together.

The scientists also learned that, while the shark and human antibodies were made of different sequences of components, their overall shapes were very similar. Their chains both featured the same “V” or hinge. The similarities gave the researchers confidence to try adding the shark features to human antibodies.

Using genetic engineering, the scientists modified shark genes that make the bridge and the core and added them to genes that make human antibodies. First they got bacteria to produce the converted antibodies, and then coaxed mammalian cells to do the same. They found that when both features were included—one alone wasn’t good enough—the antibodies resisted urea as well as other sources of breakdown, like high heat.

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Hotter climate could turn sea turtles all female

Hotter climate could turn sea turtles all female | Amazing Science |

Sea turtles are likely to be beneficiaries of a warming climate as hotter incubation conditions trigger a rising share of female hatchlings that could lift natural rates of population growth, new research to be published in Nature Climate Change on Monday shows.

But gains will be temporary if temperatures keep rising and nudge populations towards becoming all female, or exceed levels at which developing embryos die, the study found. ''There'll be a bit of a breathing space … but down the track it'll be serious,'' said Graeme Hays from Deakin University, one of the report's authors.

It has been known for decades that reptile reproduction is highly sensitive to temperature, with the ratio of male to female offspring varying. For species of sea-turtles, the pivotal temperature is an oddly uniform 29 degrees for incubation, beyond which more females emerge from the eggs.

At about 30.5 degrees, populations become fully female. As remaining males die off, ''it will be end of story without human intervention'', Professor Hays said. At higher than 33 degrees, embryos do not survive.

The study focused on a globally important loggerhead turtle rookery on the Cape Verde Islands in the Atlantic but its results also apply to species elsewhere, including the Pacific. It found light-coloured sandy beaches already produce 70.1 per cent females, while beaches with darker sands are at 93.5 per cent.

The findings should help steer conservation efforts to make a priority of protecting lighter-coloured sandy beaches or planting more vegetation near dark ones to ameliorate the warming, Professor Hays said. 

Since breeding populations are likely to swell in coming decades, sea turtle adult populations are ''unlikely to be dire in the next 150 years'', the paper said.

Professor Hays said any near-term increase in turtles would be modest compared with past populations. Green turtles in the Caribbean, for instance, are ''a fraction of 1 per cent'' of their original numbers.

Other changes linked to global warming, including effects on food sources, will also likely offset some of the benefits of having more breeding females, he said.

''Rising sea levels resulting in the loss of nesting beaches through erosion could push local turtle populations over the brink unless new suitable nesting beaches are found,'' the paper said.

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Stephen Hawking: 'Implications of artificial intelligence - are we taking AI seriously enough?'

Stephen Hawking: 'Implications of artificial intelligence - are we taking AI seriously enough?' | Amazing Science |
With the Hollywood blockbuster Transcendence playing in cinemas, with Johnny Depp and Morgan Freeman showcasing clashing visions for the future of humanity, it's tempting to dismiss the notion of highly intelligent machines as mere science fiction. But this would be a mistake, and potentially our worst mistake in history.

Artificial-intelligence (AI) research is now progressing rapidly. Recent landmarks such as self-driving cars, a computer winning at Jeopardy! and the digital personal assistants Siri, Google Now and Cortana are merely symptoms of an IT arms race fuelled by unprecedented investments and building on an increasingly mature theoretical foundation. Such achievements will probably pale against what the coming decades will bring.

The potential benefits are huge; everything that civilisation has to offer is a product of human intelligence; we cannot predict what we might achieve when this intelligence is magnified by the tools that AI may provide, but the eradication of war, disease, and poverty would be high on anyone's list. Success in creating AI would be the biggest event in human history.

Unfortunately, it might also be the last, unless we learn how to avoid the risks. In the near term, world militaries are considering autonomous-weapon systems that can choose and eliminate targets; the UN and Human Rights Watch have advocated a treaty banning such weapons. In the medium term, as emphasised by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee in The Second Machine Age, AI may transform our economy to bring both great wealth and great dislocation.

Looking further ahead, there are no fundamental limits to what can be achieved: there is no physical law precluding particles from being organised in ways that perform even more advanced computations than the arrangements of particles in human brains. An explosive transition is possible, although it might play out differently from in the movie: as Irving Good realised in 1965, machines with superhuman intelligence could repeatedly improve their design even further, triggering what Vernor Vinge called a "singularity" and Johnny Depp's movie character calls "transcendence".

One can imagine such technology outsmarting financial markets, out-inventing human researchers, out-manipulating human leaders, and developing weapons we cannot even understand. Whereas the short-term impact of AI depends on who controls it, the long-term impact depends on whether it can be controlled at all.

So, facing possible futures of incalculable benefits and risks, the experts are surely doing everything possible to ensure the best outcome, right? Wrong. If a superior alien civilisation sent us a message saying, "We'll arrive in a few decades," would we just reply, "OK, call us when you get here – we'll leave the lights on"? Probably not – but this is more or less what is happening with AI. Although we are facing potentially the best or worst thing to happen to humanity in history, little serious research is devoted to these issues outside non-profit institutes such as the Cambridge Centre for the Study of Existential Risk, the Future of Humanity Institute, the Machine Intelligence Research Institute, and the Future of Life Institute. All of us should ask ourselves what we can do now to improve the chances of reaping the benefits and avoiding the risks.

Tekrighter's curator insight, May 19, 2014 9:58 AM

Do we need to control it, or learn to coexist with it?

oliviersc's comment, May 19, 2014 4:01 PM
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Cambrian Explosion of Technology: Stephen Wolfram Wants To Inject Computation Everywhere

Cambrian Explosion of Technology: Stephen Wolfram Wants To Inject Computation Everywhere | Amazing Science |

At the 2014 SXSW Conference, Stephen Wolfram introduced the Wolfram Language, a symbolic language.  His video presentation shows some of  the profound implications of this new technology.

Imagine a future where there's no distinction between code and data. Where computers are operated by programming languages that work like human language, where knowledge and data are built in, where everything can be computed symbolically like the X and Y of school algebra problems. Where everything obvious is automated; the not-so-obvious revealed and made ready to explore. A future where billions of interconnected devices and ubiquitous networks can be readily harnessed by injecting computation.

That's the future Stephen Wolfram has pursued for over 25 years: Mathematica, the computable knowledge of Wolfram|Alpha, the dynamic interactivity of Computable Document Format, and soon, the universally accessible and computable model of the world made possible by the Wolfram Language and Wolfram Engine.

"Of the various things I've been trying to explain, this is one of the more difficult ones," Wolfram told Wired recently. What Wolfram Language essentially does, is work like a plug-in-play system for programmers, with many subsystems already in place.  Wolfram calls this knowledge-based programming.

Wolfram Language has a vast depth of built-in algorithms and knowledge, all automatically accessible through its elegant unified symbolic language. Scalable for programs from tiny to huge, with immediate deployment locally and in the cloud, the Wolfram Language builds on clear principles to create what Wolfram claims will be the world's most productive programming language.

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The last places on Earth… almost without life

The last places on Earth… almost without life | Amazing Science |

Weird and wonderful creatures thrive in the planet’s most hostile places, but there are a few spots too harsh for even the hardiest.

In the Atacama Desert in northern Chile, it looks as if nothing could ever survive. It is one of the driest places in the world, and some sections of the Mars-like expanse can go 50 years without feeling a drop of rain. As poet Alonso de Ercilla put it in 1569: “Towards Atacama, near the deserted coast, you see a land without men, where there is not a bird, not a beast, nor a tree, nor any vegetation.”

Yet Atacama is not devoid of life. Microorganisms called endoliths have found a way to cling on, by hiding themselves inside the pores of rocks, where there’s just enough water to survive. “They support a whole community of organisms that eat the byproducts of their metabolism,” says Jocelyne DiRuggiero, a microbiologist at Johns Hopkins University. “And they’re all just sitting right there in the rocks – it’s quite fascinating.”

Life, it seems, has an incredible knack for finding ways to persist. Indeed, microorganisms have been around for nearly four billion years, giving them ample time to adapt to some of the most extreme conditions in the natural world. But are there places left on Earth so harsh that they are rendered sterile?

Heat is a good starting point for answering this question. The record for heat tolerance is currently held by a group of organisms called hyperthermophile methanogens, which thrive around the edges of hydrothermal vents in the deep sea. Some of these organisms can grow at temperatures of up to 122C (252F). 

Most researchers believe that around 150C (302F) is the theoretical cut-off point for life, however. At that temperature proteins fall apart and chemical reactions cannot occur – a quirk of the biochemistry that life on Earth (so far as we know) abides by. This means that microorganisms can thrive around hydrothermal vents, but not directly within them, where temperatures can reach up to 464C (867F). The same is true for the interior of an active volcano on land. “I really think temperature is the most hostile parameter,” says Helena Santos, a microbial physiologist at the New University of Lisbon and president of the International Society for Extremophiles. When things get hot enough, she says, “It’s impossible – everything is destroyed.”

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Microchip-Like Technology Allows Single-Cell Analysis

Microchip-Like Technology Allows Single-Cell Analysis | Amazing Science |

A U.S. and Korean research team has developed a chip-like device that could be scaled up to sort and store hundreds of thousands of individual living cells in a matter of minutes. The system is similar to a random access memory chip, but it moves cells rather than electrons.

Researchers at Duke University and Daegu Gyeongbuk Institute of Science and Technology (DGIST) in the Republic of Korea hope the cell-sorting system will revolutionize research by allowing the fast, efficient control and separation of individual cells that could then be studied in vast numbers.

“Most experiments grind up a bunch of cells and analyze genetic activity by averaging the population of an entire tissue rather than looking at the differences between single cells within that population,” said Benjamin Yellen, an associate professor of mechanical engineering and materials science at Duke's Pratt School of Engineering. “That’s like taking the eye color of everyone in a room and finding that the average color is grey, when not a single person in the room has grey eyes. You need to be able to study individual cells to understand and appreciate small but significant differences in a similar population.” The study appears online May 14 in Nature Communications.

Yellen and his collaborator, Cheol Gi Kim of DGIST, printed thin electromagnetic components like those found on microchips onto a slide. These patterns create magnetic tracks and elements like switches, transistors and diodes that guide magnetic beads and single cells tagged with magnetic nanoparticles through a thin liquid film.

Like a series of small conveyer belts, localized rotating magnetic fields move the beads and cells along specific directions etched into a track, while built-in switches direct traffic to storage sites on the chip. The result is an integrated circuit that controls small magnetic objects much like the way electrons are controlled on computer chips.

In the study, the engineers demonstrate a 3-by-3 grid of compartments that allow magnetic beads to enter but not leave. By tagging cells with magnetic particles and directing them to different compartments, the cells can be separated, sorted, stored, studied and retrieved.

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Bioprinted 3D liver-mimicking device detoxifies blood

Bioprinted 3D liver-mimicking device detoxifies blood | Amazing Science |

Nanoengineers at the University of California, San Diego have developed a 3D-printed device inspired by the liver to remove dangerous toxins from the blood. The device, which is designed to be used outside the body — much like dialysis — uses nanoparticles to trap pore-forming toxins that can damage cellular membranes and are a key factor in illnesses that result from animal bites and stings, and bacterial infections.

The findings were published May 8 in the journal Nature Communications.

Nanoparticles have already been shown to be effective atneutralizing pore-forming toxins in the blood, but if those nanoparticles cannot be effectively digested, they can accumulate in the liver creating a risk of secondary poisoning, especially among patients who are already at risk of liver failure.

To solve this problem, a research team led by nanoengineering professor Shaochen Chen created a 3D-printed hydrogel matrix to house nanoparticles, forming a device that mimics the function of the liver by sensing, attracting and capturing toxins routed from the blood.

The device, which is in the proof-of-concept stage, mimics the structure of the liver but has a larger surface area designed to efficiently attract and trap toxins within the device. In an in vitro (lab) study, the device completely neutralized pore-forming toxins.

“One unique feature of this device is that it turns red when the toxins are captured,” said the co-first author, Xin Qu, who is a postdoctoral researcher working in Chen’s laboratory.  “The concept of using 3D printing to encapsulate functional nanoparticles in a biocompatible hydrogel is novel,” said Chen. “This will inspire many new designs for detoxification techniques since 3D printing allows user-specific or site-specific manufacturing of highly functional products,” Chen said.

Chen’s lab has already demonstrated the ability to print complex 3D microstructures, such as blood vessels, in mere seconds out of soft biocompatible hydrogels that contain living cells.

As previously reported, Chen’s biofabrication technology, called dynamic optical projection stereolithography (DOPsL), can produce the micro- and nanoscale resolution required to print tissues that mimic nature’s fine-grained details, including blood vessels, which are essential for distributing nutrients and oxygen throughout the body.

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Genetic tracking identifies cancer stem cells in human patients

Genetic tracking identifies cancer stem cells in human patients | Amazing Science |
The gene mutations driving cancer have been tracked for the first time in patients back to a distinct set of cells at the root of cancer -- cancer stem cells. The international research team studied a group of patients with myelodysplastic syndromes -- a malignant blood condition which frequently develops into acute myeloid leukemia. The researchers say their findings offer conclusive evidence for the existence of cancer stem cells.

The concept of cancer stem cells has been a compelling but controversial idea for many years. It suggests that at the root of any cancer there is a small subset of cancer cells that are solely responsible for driving the growth and evolution of a patient's cancer. These cancer stem cells replenish themselves and produce the other types of cancer cells, as normal stem cells produce other normal tissues.

The concept is important, because it suggests that only by developing treatments that get rid of the cancer stem cells will you be able to eradicate the cancer. Likewise, if you could selectively eliminate these cancer stem cells, the other remaining cancer cells would not be able to sustain the cancer.

'It's like having dandelions in your lawn. You can pull out as many as you want, but if you don't get the roots they'll come back,' explains first author Dr Petter Woll of the MRC Weatherall Institute for Molecular Medicine at the University of Oxford.

The researchers, led by Professor Sten Eirik W Jacobsen at the MRC Molecular Haematology Unit and the Weatherall Institute for Molecular Medicine at the University of Oxford, investigated malignant cells in the bone marrow of patients with myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS) and followed them over time.

Using genetic tools to establish in which cells cancer-driving mutations originated and then propagated into other cancer cells, they demonstrated that a distinct and rare subset of MDS cells showed all the hallmarks of cancer stem cells, and that no other malignant MDS cells were able to propagate the tumor.

The MDS stem cells were rare, sat at the top of a hierarchy of MDS cells, could sustain themselves, replenish the other MDS cells, and were the origin of all stable DNA changes and mutations that drove the progression of the disease.

'This is conclusive evidence for the existence of cancer stem cells in myelodysplastic syndromes,' says Dr Woll. 'We have identified a subset of cancer cells, shown that these rare cells are invariably the cells in which the cancer originates, and also are the only cancer-propagating cells in the patients. It is a vitally important step because it suggests that if you want to cure patients, you would need to target and remove these cells at the root of the cancer -- but that would be sufficient, that would do it.'

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The Prevalence of Species and Strains in the Human Microbiome: A Resource for Experimental Efforts

The Prevalence of Species and Strains in the Human Microbiome: A Resource for Experimental Efforts | Amazing Science |

Experimental efforts to characterize the human microbiota often use bacterial strains that were chosen for historical rather than biological reasons. A team of scientists report now an analysis of 380 whole-genome shotgun samples from 100 subjects from the NIH Human Microbiome Project. By mapping their reads to 1,751 reference genome sequences and analyzing the resulting relative strain abundance in each sample they present metrics and visualizations that can help identify strains of interest for experimentalists. They also show that approximately 14 strains of 10 species account for 80% of the mapped reads from a typical stool sample, indicating that the function of a community may not be irreducibly complex. Some of these strains account for >20% of the sequence reads in a subset of samples but are absent in others, a dichotomy that could underlie biological differences among subjects. These data should serve as an important strain selection resource for the community of researchers who take experimental approaches to studying the human microbiota.

Via Mel Melendrez-Vallard
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Gemini Planet Imager captures best photo ever of an exoplanet

Gemini Planet Imager captures best photo ever of an exoplanet | Amazing Science |

A team of researchers at the Gemini South telescope in Chile, which has recently been retrofitted with the Gemini Planet Imager (GPI) is reporting in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, that they have captured the best photo ever of an exoplanet orbiting its star. The planet, Beta Pictoris b, orbits its sun approximately 63.5 light years from us, and the GPI has allowed for calculating its orbit at 20.5 years.

Taking pictures of exoplanets is difficult, not only because they are so far away, but also because of Earth's atmosphere and of course because they are near to a star that is much brighter, which tends to overcome the light reflected off its planets. The engineers who designed the GPI used multiple techniques (a field spectrograph that has both low spectral resolution and high spatial resolution and a coronagraph that suppresses diffraction) to mask direct starlight, while simultaneously enhancing the light that is bounced off of nearby planets. The result, the team reports is an instrument capable of producing images of exoplanets that are an order of magnitude higher than any other previous imaging systems.

Beta Pictoris b is a gas giant similar in size to Jupiter, though its star is much younger than ours—just 12 million years old. The picture of it was created with an exposure of just one minute, which is a record for an image of an exoplanet—the planet orbits its star just a little closer than does Saturn in our solar system. It was first discovered in 2006 by researchers working with data from the Hubble Space Telescope and verified three years later by researchers at Europe's VLT. Pictures taken at the time suggested that Beta Pictoris b had to regularly plow through space debris of some sort, causing it to appear murky at times.

Beta Pictoris b was chosen as a first test run due to its designation as an easy target. The research team at Gemini South plan to move on to imaging other exoplanets, eventually taking pictures of at least 600 that appear promising. Doing so will help with better understanding orbit times and perhaps help with refining their ages and masses.

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New blood test accurately detects presence of breast cancer and monitors response to treatment

New blood test accurately detects presence of breast cancer and monitors response to treatment | Amazing Science |
Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center investigators report they have designed a blood test that accurately detects the presence of advanced breast cancer and also holds promise for precisely monitoring response to cancer treatment.

The test, called the cMethDNA assay, accurately detected the presence of cancer DNA in the blood of patients with metastatic breast cancers up to 95 percent of the time in laboratory studies. The findings were described in the April 15 issue of the journal Cancer Research.

Currently, there is no useful laboratory test to monitor patients with early stage breast cancer who are doing well, but could have an asymptomatic recurrence, says Saraswati Sukumar, Ph.D., who is the Barbara B. Rubenstein Professor of Oncology and co-director of the Breast Cancer Program at the Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center.

Generally, radiologic scans and standard blood tests are indicated only if a woman complains of symptoms, such as bone aches, shortness of breath, pain, or worrisome clinical exam findings. Otherwise, routine blood tests or scans in asymptomatic patients often produce false positives, leading to additional unnecessary tests and biopsies, and have not been shown to improve survival outcomes in patients with early stage breast cancer who develop a recurrence.

Sukumar, also a professor of pathology at Johns Hopkins, says that the current approach to monitoring for recurrence is not ideal, and that "the goal is to develop a test that could be administered routinely to alert the physician and patient as soon as possible of a return of the original cancer in a distant spot. With the development of cMethDNA, we've taken a first big step toward achieving this goal."

To design the test, Sukumar and her team scanned the genomes of primary breast cancer patients, as well as DNA from the blood of metastatic cancer patients. They selected 10 genes specifically altered in breast cancers, including newly identified genetic markers AKR1B1, COL6A2, GPX7, HIST1H3C, HOX B4, RASGRF2, as well as TM6SF1, RASSF1, ARHGEF7, and TMEFF2, which Sukumar's team had previously linked to primary breast cancer.

The test, developed by Sukumar, collaborator Mary Jo Fackler, Ph.D., and other scientists, detects so-called hypermethyation, a type of chemical tag in one or more of the breast cancer-specific genes present in tumor DNA and detectable in cancer patients' blood samples. Hypermethylation often silences genes that keep runaway cell growth in check, and its appearance in the DNA of breast cancer-related genes shed into the blood indicates that cancer has returned or spread.

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