Snapshots of Science: November 2017

Snapshots of Science: November 2017

Shail Bhatt summarises this month’s most interesting research developments in the biological sciences

2nd: A new hope, a new smile

The gene therapy juggernaut just keeps on pushing forwards, and it’s a huge deal for children with spinal muscular atrophy (SMA). SMA is a genetic disease that occurs during infancy, where the nerves and muscles stop working. The disease is the most common genetic cause of death in babies, where many die within their first two years of age. Specifically, SMA occurs due to a genetic defect in the SMN1 gene that codes for a protein, SMN, needed for motor neurons that control muscles to survive. However, these errors may now be corrected, thanks to gene therapy, which involves injecting a virus containing the DNA for SMN, allowing the body to make the protein that helps neurons function. The therapy has now been tested in 15 patients in a clinical trial led by researchers from Ohio State University and AveXis, and each treatment has been successful.

14th: Tick, spider, tick!

If you thought jet lag was annoying, try imagining resetting your natural biological clock by seven hours on a daily basis. That’s the case for three species of orb-weaving spiders: Allocyclosa bifurca, Cyclosa turbinata, and Gasteracantha cancriformis. These spiders have the fastest and most fascinating natural biological clocks, or circadian rhythms, in the World. Most organisms have circadian rhythms almost matching the 24-hour day-night cycles, but these spiders have clocks that average 17.4, 18.5, and 19 hours respectively. Darrell Moore and colleagues at the East Tennessee State University discovered this by placing these arachnids in darkness and monitoring their intrinsic patterns. Interestingly, this completely different circadian rhythm could be an evolutionary adaptation to allow these spiders to hunt at night, and build webs before dawn to prevent getting caught by predators. The early bird may catch the worm, but it won’t be able to catch the orb-weaving spider!

16th: Mo’ stress, mo’ problems

It may seem like a no-brainer, but research has shown that chronic stress can lead to bad decision-making. According to Alexander Friedman and colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who used rodents as their model organisms, chronic stress in mice produces abnormal assessments of the costs and benefits of certain situations. Specifically, chronic stress can lead to the dysfunctional firing of striatal neurons (cells found in the brain which are involved in planning and decision-making), which generates a spike in the firing of other neurons, causing irrational behaviour. As a result, scientists noticed that under chronic stress, the mice picked the options with the greatest benefits, regardless of the cost incurred. These patterns can therefore be used to describe human behaviour during chronic stress, where we tend to make risky decisions.

17th: Drinking buddies needed for marriage

Prairie voles drink alcohol (when given the chance to, under lab conditions of course!). And akin to humans, this can cause problems. Heavy drinking often strains relationships between prairie vole couples, the only rodents known to form monogamous relationships, and often ends in ‘divorce’. However, on the flipside, this is only the case when one partner is a heavy drinker; if both are, then the ‘marriage’ is stable. This is what Andre Walcott and colleagues at the Oregon Health and Science University discovered after supplying one partner per pair of 25 voles with liquor. After drinking, it was shown that males who drank alone spent less time with their original partners than those that drank together. Therefore, these results suggested that prairie voles can be observed to help explain human relationships and their breakdowns!

22nd: Robots in your bloodstream

It’s a technological revolution inside your body. To better diagnose diseases and deliver drugs, Xiaohui Yan and colleagues created a remote-controlled biohybrid microrobot; that is, they used small biological cells with engineered features. The cells, derived from spirulina (blue-green algae), were fitted with magnetic particles, and magnetism was used to help navigate them to different corners of the body to kill cancerous tumours. The biohybrid microrobot, only a few microns in size, has incredible potential: it degrades naturally, can access hard-to-reach places, and senses homeostatic changes in the body, making it a vital tool to tackle diseases. Whilst more in-depth research needs to be undertaken, this innovation developed by both Chinese and British institutions, is truly a remarkable feat in biotechnology.


Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Shail Bhatt