Clues to Evolution Uncovered below the Oceanic Crust

By Yasaman Khorsandian

The majority of life on Earth is composed of microbial species, most of which have never been cultivated in laboratories even though they are considered to be the simplest forms of life. An example of such organism is the group of microbes named Hydrothermarchaeota. A team of researchers at the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Scientists have only recently succeeded in cultivating these organisms with the use of a new genetic sequencing technique named genomics; this novel method can be used to sequence and analyze large portions of any genetic code. With the help of this technique and the use of the deep-diving robot Jason, who can collect water samples from the oceanic crust, researchers were able to discover this species’ survival strategies that allow it to thrive in extreme conditions.

The researchers found that Hydrothermarchaeota use the rare metabolic strategy of processing carbon monoxide and sulfate, which allows it to survive on low amounts of energy. Moreover, the members of this species possess the ability to move, which can be essential to their survival in an environment such as the deep sea with very scarce resources. The analysis of their genome also revealed the fact that they belong to the prokaryotic group of life named archaea, meaning that they evolved very early on in the history of life on Earth; therefore, the information uncovered by their genome can be essential in understanding how evolution took place on Earth, and maybe even on other planets.

 

Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences. (2019, February 7). Unusual microbes hold clues to early life: Cutting-edge molecular methods reveal unusual metabolism of extreme microbes. ScienceDaily. Retrieved February 18, 2019 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/02/190207102621.htm

New Molecules to Regenerate Neurons Bring Promise to Treat Neurological Disease

By Duru Cosar

Recently, a team of researchers at Penn State recognized a set of three or four molecules that had the ability to convert glial cells, which are typically used for insulation in neurons, into new neurons. They believe that these functional new neurons may be able to treat stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, and brain injuries. Gong Chen, head of the research team and Chair in Life Sciences at Penn State, informs that the main issue with brain damage is that neurons do not regenerate because they don’t divide, which makes repair difficult. Glial cells accumulate around the damaged tissue and can multiply. In a previous study, his team tested nine molecules to convert glial cells into neurons, but because the number of molecules was so high, the process of transitioning to a clinical treatment became complicated. The team tested different numbers and combinations of molecules to determine the best method to convert astrocytes, a type of glial cells, into new neurons. Through hundreds of drug combinations, they determined that the best combination was of four molecules that control four signaling pathways in human astrocytes. This method results in successful conversion (about 70%) of human astrocytes into functional neurons. These neurons can survive more than seven months in a laboratory and have the abilities that normal neurons do. It is also possible to use three molecules instead of four, but this drops the conversion rate down to 20%. 

Previously, Chen and his team had developed a gene therapy technology that converts astrocytes into functional neurons, but due to the high cost and complex delivery method, they wanted to find a different approach. Their new method would be delivered in the form of a pill as the molecules can be chemically synthesized into a pill. Chen also notes that a pill would allow for wider distribution around the world, reaching areas that lack a developed hospital system. Chen and his team do acknowledge that the specifics of drug packaging and delivery as well as other technical issues and potential side effects still need to be resolved. However, once they are resolved, the team believes that this combination of molecules holds promise to help treat patients with neurological dysfunctions. 

 

Penn State. (2019, February 7). Simple drug combination creates new neurons from neighboring  cells. ScienceDaily. Retrieved February 17, 2019 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/02/190207173226.htm

Tracing the Evolution of Mammals Through Lactation

By Jacqueline Katz

Milk production has long been considered a trademark of mammals, but this notion has recently been challenged. Researchers have uncovered a rather broad range of insects, birds, and fish that defy this idea. And further, this finding gives rise to theories about the evolution of mammals. Evolutionary biologists theorize that we can trace mammalian lactation back 300 million years, 100 million years before the first animals of the class Mammalia even emerged. Ancestors of the modern mammal produced soft-shelled eggs that were prone to drying out, which prompted the evolution of animals that could secrete fluid from their chests to moisten their eggs; this paved the way for the development of nipples. Milk later became a nourishing solution.

While there are a number of factors that distinguish different species’ milk and lactation processes, there are overwhelming similarities in the types of proteins that are present in many different animals’ milk. A surprising assay of milk produced by tsetse flies during gestation indicates that the insect’s milk shares considerable chemical similarities to that produced by mammals.

Biologists are also now asking us to reconsider how we define “milk.” A certain scientific school of thought describes milk as any product synthesized or modified by the parent on which the offspring relies for survival. According to this definition, Nicrophorus orbicollis produces milk. This variety of burying beetle predigests a piece of carrion and, having chemically modified the bolus, spits up the regurgitate into the mouths of its young. And, there are many other species – mammals, insects, birds, and fish alike – that lactate in an equally unorthodox way.

 

Natalie Angier. (2019, February 11). Everywhere in The Animal Kingdom, Followers of The Milky Way. The New York Times. Retrieved February 15, 2019 from https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/11/science/milk-animals-evolution.html

Challenging the impracticality of common diagnostic techniques: Introducing the field of proteomics to make diagnoses of rare disease

By Patrycja Sztachelski 

Genomics is a technique commonly used to provide insight into the genetic makeup of rare diseases, but unfortunately it fails to diagnose up to 50% of patients. With a new approach, genomics has been combined with the field of proteomics, which involves the study of proteins, to make genetic diagnoses for two children suffering from severe congenital neutropenia.

This disease affects neutrophils, or white blood cells containing toxic proteins to assist the body’s efforts to fight unwanted bacteria. Klein, a physician and director of the Children’s Hospital of the University of Munich, explains that “when neutrophil development is disrupted…every bacterial or fungal infection can become a life-threatening medical emergency.”

The severity of rare diseases such as this one makes it imperative that a more innovated approach is used to identify characteristics that uniquely form each disease. Postdoctoral researcher Sebastian Hesse developed a protocol to collect proteins from healthy neutrophils carefully, which further allowed scientists led by Piotr Grabowski in Juri Rappsilber’s proteomics lab at the Technical University of Berlin to establish a baseline neutrophil proteome to use for diagnostic purposes.

For two patients who could not be accurately diagnosed using genome sequence studies, “data on protein abundance in each patient led the researchers to run secondary genetic analyses that proved conclusive.” Although there is still plenty of work to be done in perfecting this new approach that combines genomics and proteomics to run diagnoses of higher quality, Klein claims that “there will be huge potential for proteome analysis at a very low cost down the road.” Hopefully, personalized treatments featuring greater accuracy in test results will soon become accessible to the population struggling to live with rare diseases.

 

American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. (2019, February 8). When sequencing fails to pinpoint a rare disease: Combining proteomics, genomics improves diagnostic accuracy for congenital neutropenia. ScienceDaily. Retrieved February 17, 2019 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/02/190208115325.htm

A New Translational Model for Small Cell Lung Cancer

By Kurtis Chien-Young

One of the challenges in biomedical science is developing a workable model of the disease you want to study. Dr. Joyce Chen and her colleagues at the Weill Cornell Medical College met this very obstacle when researching small cell lung cancer (SCLC). SCLC is a rapid, treatment-resistant cancer that affects smokers, and its quick course of action makes it difficult to study in a lab setting.

While rodent models have been used to study SCLC, animal research comes with its drawbacks, and the mechanism of the disease is still poorly understood. Dr. Chen sought to characterize SCLC in human cells, using cultured human embryonic stem cells. By first signalling the stem cells to differentiate into lung progenitor cells, the researchers were able to coax the cells to develop into pulmonary neuroendocrine-like cells, which are the cell types primarily affected by SCLC.

Dr. Chen then used the stem cells to model two genetic mutations prevalent in SCLC. Among patients who suffer from SCLC, there are mutations in the tumor suppressor genes retinoblastoma (RB) and tumor protein P53 (TP53). TP53 prevents cell division when DNA is damaged, while RB blocks the cell cycle by inhibiting transcription factors. Deficiencies in either lead to increased cell growth and decreased cell death, which are characteristic of cancers. Ultimately, the results suggest that these pulmonary stem cells with manipulations in TP53 and RB expression could be a promising model for studying small cell lung cancer.

Rockefeller University Press. "Researchers develop human cell-based model to study small cell lung cancer." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 8 February 2019. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/02/190208094324.htm>.

Exercising now may prevent Alzheimer’s later

By Emily Taketa

Physical activity has been shown to release a specific hormone, irisin, that was correlated with energy metabolism. However, a recent study published in Nature Medicine, has suggested that irisin may also promote learning and memory by protecting against neuronal degradation, specifically in the brain’s hippocampus. Researchers at Columbia University’s Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons and the Taub Institute for Research on Alzheimer’s Disease and the Aging Brain found that brain tissue samples of Alzheimer’s patients showed decreased irisin concentrations in the hippocampus. Then in further studies with mice, they found that healthy mice show weakened neural synapses and decreased memory retention when irisin was disabled in their hippocampus.

The study further analyzed the influence of exercise on irisin levels with trials of swimming mice. The mice who regularly swam had decreased memory loss even after infusions of beta amyloid, which is a neurodegenerative protein associated with Alzheimer’s. Furthermore, when they blocked irisin in the hippocampus, the swimming mice performed the same as the sedentary mice after beta amyloid infusions. The researchers concluded that exercise increases irisin hormone levels in the brain, which is possibly correlated with an increase in memory even when treated with beta amyloid, a neurodegenerative protein, in mice.

These results have fascinating implications for human treatment and therapy for dementia, Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases. The researchers are currently attempting to develop a drug that can mimic irisin’s effects within the hippocampus for those with limited physical capabilities. Overall, they urge people to exercise more to improve their health now and protect against future cognitive degeneration.

 

Columbia University Irving Medical Center. (2019, February 8). How exercise may protect against Alzheimer's. ScienceDaily. Retrieved February 16, 2019

New Study Suggests Salt Intake May Be Crucial to Solving Lightheadedness But Poorly Understood

By Eliana Rosenzweig             

Postural lightheadedness, which describes the lightheadedness one experiences upon standing up, often occurs in adults as a result of falling blood pressure. While it is a mild medical symptom on its own, it can result in detrimental consequences like falling. Historically, medical professionals have recommended that patients should increase their salt intake to avoid lightheadedness; however, researchers at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC) produced results that suggest quite the opposite. Their findings are part of a larger study called the DASH-Sodium Trial (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension).

The study included 412 participants, each randomly assigned to sodium levels of 1500, 2300, and 3300 mg/d over four weeks and further randomly assigned to follow sodium levels in the context of the DASH diet or a typical western diet (control). The study found that participants consuming less sodium were found to have lower blood pressure. Within the study, researchers also found that older subjects experienced slightly less lightheadedness after increasing sodium uptake, whereas younger subjects reported an overall increase in lightheadedness.

Stephen Jaraschek, corresponding author of the study and a physician at BIDMC said, "Sodium is widespread in our foods, yet its effects are poorly understood. This study illustrates the importance of more trials involving the foods we eat so that we can better understand what constitutes a healthy diet." The study effectively calls to question the traditional recommendation to increase sodium intake to decrease postural lightheadedness and also raises questions about how sodium actually affects the human diet and cardiovascular health.

 

Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. (2019, February 8). Higher sodium intake associated with increased lightheadedness in the context of the DASH-sodium trial: Study turns common knowledge on its head by challenging experts' traditional recommendations. ScienceDaily. Retrieved February 14, 2019 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/02/190208124700.htm

We want more GPR39 protein, and we want it now!

By Grace Perry

A study performed at the Oregon National Primate Research Center at OHSU found a gene that may alleviate alcoholism when expressed at higher levels. Among primates, the gene, which codes for the GPR39 protein, was expressed at much lower levels in primates that engaged in voluntary heavy consumption of alcohol compared to those that consumed less alcohol. In a different study, researchers found that when they increased the expression of the protein that is encoded for by the gene among mice, they consumed 50 percent less alcohol. This result was noted without seeing an effect on their overall fluid consumption, further suggesting that the gene plays an important role in the consumption of alcohol in particular.

            Previous research has previously linked the gene with depression, and since mood disorders and alcoholism often go hand in hand, the potential to develop a drug to influence the activity of this gene could have major impacts on human patients afflicted by co-occurring alcoholism and depression. Researchers are taking steps in this direction: they are currently examining postmortem brain tissue from human patients who had alcohol use disorders to determine if a drug that mimics the effects of the GPR39-encoding gene could be used to treat alcoholism. There are currently few options for treating alcoholism that are approved by the FDA, so such a drug would be incredibly important in providing relief for people suffering from both alcoholism and mood disorders.

 

Oregon Health & Science University. (2019, February 8). New target to prevent, treat alcoholism identified. ScienceDaily. Retrieved February 12, 2019 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/02/190208142107.htm

Hidden Historical Truths of Women in Research

By Ella Do

Historical bias certainly played its role in preventing and further masking women’s scientific contributions to the world of research. Published papers credit scientists by listing names of those qualified as “authors,” while others considered to have made fewer contributions often find their names under the “acknowledgements” heading. Unfortunately, no specific requirements–of hours committed, for example–separate those recognized as authors versus those acknowledged. Rori Rohlfs, San Francisco State Assistant Professor of Biology, and Emilia Huerta-Sanchez, Assistant Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, took the initiative to take a closer look in comparing statistics between the two headings. The two gathered a research team of seven SF State undergraduate students to gather data from past research papers relevant to theoretical population biology, a field known to have been male-dominant. Using the Theoretical Population Biology scientific journal and recording data from nearly nine hundred of its works published between 1970 and 1990, the team found 43.2 percent of programmers found in the acknowledgements were women, whereas only 7.4 percent of listed authors were female. In fact, several women’s names appeared in multiple papers under the acknowledgements. The team’s findings suggest that women were unknowingly hindered in the field for decades without the deserved credit to help them advance as scientists.

However, concern of its present-day impact on how women are represented across disciplines still remains. Rohlfs and Huerta-Sanchez’s team hope to continue their research to unearth more hidden contributions made by the underrecognized female science community. They not only wish to provide greater insight into these histories but aim to use this raised awareness towards improving equity within today’s male-dominant scientific fields.


Citation: San Francisco State University. (2019, February 7). Study reveals the hidden contributions of women to a branch of science: Decades of research papers show how female scientists' work was overlooked. ScienceDaily. Retrieved February 11, 2019 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/02/190207102624.htm

RESEARCH HIGHLIGHT: LOGAN ZHANG

By Kurtis Chien-Young

Logan Zhang is junior pursuing a Psychology major at Tufts University. This past summer, he researched the association between periodontal disease and chronic kidney disease at the Marshfield Clinic Research Institute. You can read about his research here: http://www.marshfieldresearch.org/srip/2018-internship-project-abstract-logan-zhang

Logan Zhang, Marshfield Clinic Research Institute

Logan Zhang, Marshfield Clinic Research Institute

1. First off, how did you get involved with the Marshfield Clinic? Did you get involved through the Tufts Career Center, or did you reach out to the clinic on your own?

I reached out on my own; I was researching online for internship opportunities related to dentistry and oral health, and this opportunity turned up. I feel like Tufts' career center and pre-health organizations don't provide enough opportunities for pre-dental students.

2. Can you tell me about the research project you worked on through your summer internship?

Marshfield Clinic is one of few healthcare organizations that utilizes combined medical and dental patient data. So using these data, I investigated the association between an oral condition, periodontal disease, and a systemic condition, chronic kidney disease. Among other analyses, I investigated severity of periodontal disease as compared to markers of kidney function over time, and discovered a potential trend relating decline of kidney function to episodes of severe periodontal disease. I'd like to thank my mentor, Dr. Ingrid Glurich, for helping me to understand it's important to consider the mouth as part of the body too, and understand that oral conditions can contribute to systemic conditions!

3. What kind of problems did you face when conducting your research? How did you overcome the obstacles?

When working on a case-control study like I did, it was incredibly difficult to find the correct control population to match my cases. There are just so many potential confounding variables in science, especially in retrospective studies like mine, that finding appropriate controls is a monumental task. We tried our best to control for as many variables as possible: age, gender, number of teeth, etc. But even so, it was difficult if not impossible to isolate a confident causal link from this dataset.

4. How do you think your experience with the Marshfield Clinic has affected your long-term career goals?

I got to work and be intimately involved with really great research relevant to the field of dentistry. I met and worked with a lot of dentists, and I was exposed more to the research side of dentistry. Overall, it really opened my eyes to another side of my career that I hadn't considered before.

5. Do you have any advice for other undergraduates looking to get into the research fields you’ve worked in?

Expand your search to wherever you can -- don't just look for local opportunities.  Research in oral health is out there, but it's not nearly as universal as research in medicine. Also, look into the Marshfield Clinic Summer Internship!

If you would like to have your own research featured on the TuftScope blog, you can reach Kurtis at kurtis.chien_young@tufts.edu

Power to the Patient: Preferred Treatments for PTSD Prove More Promising

By Rachel Burd

The University of Washington and Case Western Reserve University have investigated the role of the patient’s preference in the context of treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This study compared two popular treatments for PTSD. One option was a type of cognitive behavioral therapy called prolonged exposure, which allowed PTSD patients to access the memory of their trauma such that they could understand their thoughts and emotions as well as develop coping mechanisms. The second option was the use of sertraline, marketed as Zoloft®, which is a member of a class of antidepressant medications called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors. In this study, the treatment was markedly more effective when the patient had chosen the form of treatment.

200 adults who had been diagnosed with chronic PTSD participated in this two-year study. When the study commenced, all subjects expressed a choice of one of the two options. 61% of the subjects preferred prolonged exposure therapy. Among those who received their preference, symptoms subsided to a greater extent and the completion rate of the treatment was significantly higher. Of the participants who preferred and received therapy, 74% were PTSD-free within two years. Only 37% of those who preferred therapy and received medication had been relieved of their PTSD symptoms and diagnoses within the same time frame.

Both prolonged exposure therapy and sertraline are thoroughly documented as effective treatments, but are appreciably different options. Psychotherapy and medication are rarely compared in clinical trials. The results of this particular study have major implications for clinical medicine. These findings reveal the importance of the patient’s voice in the patient-clinician conversation about his or her medical treatments and overall health. An individual’s unique personality and experiences, as well as the inherently nebulous and complicated nature of mental health, require clinicians to design personalized treatment plans for their patients.

University of Washington. (2018, October 19). PTSD symptoms improve when patient chooses form of treatment. ScienceDaily. Retrieved November 3, 2018 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/10/181019131515.htm

A novel scientific approach to addressing the effect of pollution on marine life.

By Alec Tyminski

Researchers Maya Cheikh and Richard Thomson recently introduced a novel scientific approach to examining various marine environments. The study, carried out at the University of Plymouth, utilized a type of mollusc known as the great scallop in order to document how quickly plastic nanoparticles can infiltrate the bodies and lungs of aquatic animals. Nanoparticles were created within their lab facility and incorporated with a label. The label allowed the team to assess how many and how quickly the nanoparticles entered the body of the scallop at environmentally relevant concentrations. The results of the study revealed that nanoparticles can be rapidly taken up by marine organisms. Cheikh reports that “in just a few hours they [. . .] can become distributed across most major organs.” Even after the scallops were moved to clean water conditions, traces of the particles remained for weeks after the experiment was concluded. This study introduced a novel way of documenting plastic pollutants on marine life, as well as bringing attention to how quickly those animals can be affected by the rising amount of pollution within our oceans today.

University of Plymouth. (2018, December 3). Billions of nanoplastics accumulate in marine organisms within six hours. ScienceDaily. Retrieved December 14, 2018 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/12/181203080339.htm

Research Highlight: Dominic Kleinknecht

By Kurtis Chien-Young

Dominic Kleinknecht

Dominic Kleinknecht

Dominic Kleinknecht is a Masters student researching at the Fraunhofer Center for Manufacturing Innovation at Boston University. He worked with TuftScope while studying in Boston in 2015.

1. Tell me a bit about yourself. What did you think about your time as an exchange student at Tufts? Where are you working now?

My name is Dominic Kleinknecht, I am a second year masters student in Biomedical Technologies, and am currently working on my Master thesis research project at the Fraunhofer Center for Manufacturing Innovation at Boston University. I’m developing a rapid, field-ready diagnostic test for biodefense priority pathogens such as Zika virus. This is the second time I’m in Boston for a thesis project, after I extended my study abroad during my junior year at Tufts University for a summer research project in the Kaplan lab for my Bachelor thesis. There, I supported a PhD student on a tissue engineered, in vitro human cortical brain model.

My time at Tufts was actually a big factor for me to actively look for options to come back to Boston, since my two semesters as a Jumbo were an amazing experience from start to finish! My undergrad program in Germany in Molecular Medicine had a mandatory year abroad integrated into the curriculum, and my home university in Tübingen has a long exchange history and awesome exchange program with Tufts. I wanted to study abroad in the US, and more specifically in Boston, so Tufts checked all the boxes – and in Fall 2015 I found myself arriving on the beautiful Tufts campus and picked up my keys at the Police Station for my dorm room in Lewis, ready to take on my exchange year! Another cool thing of my exchange year was that I did not have to fulfill any credit requirements for my German program - I could take whatever class I wanted to. I took full advantage of that and thus got to know many amazing people, all from different majors and minors, ranging from Biomedical Engineering to Computer Science, IR, and Psychology. It was amazing, and a very formative year for me that made me fall in love with Boston. And unsurprisingly, I am back again for more. ^^

2. You were recently credited as a co-author on a paper published in ACS Biomaterials Science & Engineering. Could you tell me about this work, as well as how you personally contributed to it?

Yes, the paper was first authored by the PhD student I joined in summer 2016. He was working on developing a tissue engineered human cortical brain model in a petri dish. Therefore, he prepared silk polymer scaffolds that looked like little donuts, in which he wanted to culture human induced pluripotent stem cells. These cells would then be differentiated into neurons or other neuronal cell types to, eventually, mimic a human neural network in vitro. The research was foundational in nature but in the long run, having a tissue model for human brain tissue could be used as a drug testing platform, or a research platform for e.g. traumatic brain injury with more translatable results than animal models. I remember that when I joined the project, it was a 50:50 chance that cells would survive or die, and he didn’t know why. We figured it would be helpful to determine the best possible baseline conditions for undifferentiated stem cell survival in the scaffolds, before differentiating them into neurons. My project over the summer was thus culturing human stem cells, preparing the silk polymer scaffolds to provide the cells a space for spatial attachment, and seeding the stem cells into the scaffolds, maintaining the seeded cells in 3D tissue culture, and running viability tests on them. The experiments I ran were seeding the cells into the scaffolds at defined concentrations, maintaining them for 5 days, and then running experiments on cell viability. After 5 days, my supervisor took over the stem cell-laden scaffolds and started the differentiation process. By the time I left and had finished my project, we had nailed down the optimal seeding and maintenance conditions for the first 5 days to yield densely stem cell-laden 3D scaffolds with viable cells. From there on, he optimized the neuronal differentiation in 3D, kept the growing neural network alive for 6 months in culture, and ran experiments on neural action potential firing patterns in the “little brains,” which there were! The model even responded to physical stress – the firing pattern changed when weights were dropped onto the neural network, just like a mini-concussion! All in all, a very cool project with many promising implications for further research and the future!

3. Why is your research important? How do you imagine the 3D tissue models will be used?

I reckon the main application for the near future is going to be further research. The model is impressive on its own already but could obviously be improved in many ways. We are far from replicating a brain in a petri dish; there is no vascularization, many cell types are missing, and it’s only a couple thousand neurons compared to the millions of neurons in an actual brain. But that’s why it’s a tissue model, after all. It could also be very well used for better drug research or even foundational research into traumatic brain injury. Animal models are the norm, but only a fraction of drugs that show promising results in lab animals make it through the approval process or show any effects in human pilot studies to begin with. Testing drugs on human tissues could be an important building block in expediting active compound research and could also help understanding human pathologies and conditions better. Why study Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s in rats when you could grow a neural network derived from Parkinson or Alzheimer patients that already come with the exact pathological genetic or enzymatic changes we see in humans? For these points, the tissue models I helped develop could certainly be a helpful and powerful tool.

4. What are some of the problems you faced when doing research? How did you go about solving them?

Research is, at its core, daily problem solving, and I had quite a few in my project. The stem cells kept dying for no reasons, then survived in all seeding concentrations the next experiment, which was baffling. It was the first research project I was part of where I basically had free hand over what I do, and how I do it, so running into issues meant it was on me to figure it out. What really helped was meticulously going over the routine that was performed to set up the experiment. Were the stem cells contaminated? Were the tips not sterile? Was the media expired? Questioning everything was my number one strategy for spotting potential sources of error. I also applied the rubber duck approach to my experiment planning, a concept I was introduced to in COMP11 during my Spring semester. I would talk out my planned experiments, either to myself or to someone in the lab, to have a second opinion on potential issues. And the last thing is not shying away from asking people. Asking never hurts, and my experience has been that scientists are very helpful and encouraging.

5. Do you have any advice for undergraduates who may be interested in your field of study? Is there anything you wish someone had told you before you started working?

Don’t think you need to come in with a ton of knowledge or skills. Science is often just giving it a shot and seeing what’s happening. How did I determine my initial seeding concentrations I tested? I checked some paper, found very different concentrations, tried to adjust it to the size and volume of the scaffold, and ballparked it, basically. Science is an iterative process, which means it is time-consuming, and can be very, very unforgiving, especially if nothing seems to work. But, that’s what I had to learn the hard way in my first couple weeks, even that is a scientific finding, and one piece in the big puzzle that you want to solve. I’ll be honest, science is not for everyone, but if you have a passion and want to gain a deep understanding of what you are researching, you’ll have a great and rewarding time! Personally, looking back, it had helped me a lot that I tried myself out in many different disciplines of Biomedical Research over the course of my academic career through lab courses, internships, and side jobs. I’d recommend to just try it out, get your feet wet in different fields, do a little side project, or join a lab over the summer, and maybe you’ll also catch the science bug. The feeling of finally figuring out why your experiments were not working, or your experiments coming out the way you want them to are hard to beat. 😉

6. What kind of projects are you working on now, if you are allowed to talk about it?

As said, I am currently working on my Master thesis project where I am developing a rapid and field-ready diagnostic test for Zika virus, one biodefense priority pathogen. The end game is a diagnostic device, and we’re very focused on rapid manufacturing and low costs, which guides most of the design and assay development decisions. Unfortunately, I signed a confidentiality agreement concerning the details of my work, but what I can say is that it is an awesome project and that I highly enjoy my day-to-day research routine! The pieces are coming together, and the main assay is already working under lab conditions – next steps will focus on making it more robust to environmental conditions and contaminations and come up with an initial design for the device. Outside my thesis project I also work on a biotech startup as an affiliate, network my way around Boston, and am currently applying for PhD programs. Also, what a surprise, in Boston. 😉

Brain Development in Infants

By Corey Bryton

A research team at the University of Turku conducted a study with the goal to investigate brain development in infants. While there is a fairly comprehensive understanding of adult brain structure and function, much of the brain development process in infancy remains a mystery to the scientific community.

In the study, the research team studied 68 babies (of both sexes) that were between 2-5 weeks old. Using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), the brains of the babies were observed and compared with a focus on age’s effect of lobar volumes and brain symmetry. Satu Lehtola, the lead researcher, reported, "we observed that in both sexes, the lobes were asymmetric in the same way: the right temporal lobe, left parietal and left occipital lobes were larger than their counter side. Differences between sexes were found, but they were subtle and included only locally restricted areas in the grey matter." These findings support previous assumptions that the growth of grey matter in the brain occurs more rapidly than the growth of white matter in early infancy.

These findings strengthen findings from other studies that investigated infantile brain development. A strong foundation of understanding can allow further studies to be carried out to study the environment’s effect on brain development in infants.

University of Turku. (2018, November 30). New information about infant brain structure. ScienceDaily. Retrieved December 9, 2018 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/11/181130111613.htm

High-Crime Neighborhood Residents Three Times as Likely to Experience Epileptic Seizures

By Yasaman Khorsandian

Over 65 million people worldwide suffer from epilepsy, a chronic neurological disorder causing seizures that can be difficult to control, even with medication. Numerous studies have previously shown that individuals who live in neighborhoods with high crime rates have significantly higher levels of a hormone associated with stress, named cortisol; stress is often times considered a risk factor for people who have epilepsy because it can trigger seizures. A recent study published in Science Daily that included 63 Chicago residents with epilepsy attempted to find a correlation between number of seizures and neighborhood crime rates. The researchers used the participants’ zip codes and the City of Chicago Police Data Portal to find each individual’s neighborhood crime rate. The participants self-reported the number of seizures they had experienced in the past month and in the past three months. The study concluded from the resulting data that people living in high-crime neighborhoods experienced three times as may seizures in the previous month compared to those living in low-crime neighborhoods. The results are all the more striking because the study showed no correlation between neighborhood crime rates and the participants’ socioeconomic statuses, meaning that the fewer number of seizures in individuals living in low-crime neighborhoods cannot be linked to their easier access to medications. Epileptic seizures can significantly lower one’s quality of life, affecting an individual’s professional and personal lives; therefore, the need for understanding the correlation between the number of seizures and crime rates is a pressing matter because it might help people suffering from epilepsy manage their seizures with better education regarding stress and self-management.

University of Illinois at Chicago. (2018, December 2). Epileptics in high-crime neighborhoods have three times as many seizures. ScienceDaily. Retrieved December 9, 2018 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/12/181202184348.htm

Our Skin is Making Us Sick: Newly Discovered Bacteria that is Causing Antibiotic Resistance in Post-Surgical Patients

By Shruti Sagar

Researchers at the Milner Centre for Evolution at the University of Bath have discovered that Staphylococcus epidermidis, like MRSA, is an apparent cause of post-surgical life-threatening infections. Post-surgical infections can be incredibly serious and sometimes fatal. To identify the specific genes that allow what is normally harmless skin bacterium to cause life-threatening infections, the researchers took the skin samples of patients who suffered infections after hip or knee surgeries and compared them to skin samples of healthy volunteers. By comparing genetic variations in the genomes of these samples, they pinpointed 61 genes in the post-surgical samples that were not present in the healthy samples. These genes are so dangerous because they have the ability to help the bacteria grow and replicate through the bloodstream, avoid immune response, and make the cell surface sticky so that organisms can form biofilms that eventually cause resistance to antibiotics. Post-surgical infections are extremely difficult to diagnose and pinpoint, so being able to refer back to the disease-associated genes is very helpful in being able to identify who is highest at risk for infection prior to undergoing surgery in the first place.  Once they find out who is most at risk of infection, researchers and doctors can design interventions with the purpose of increasing hygiene measures and sanitation protocols in these populations before they undergo surgery.

 

University of Bath. (2018, November 28). The potentially deadly bacterium that's on everyone's skin. ScienceDaily. Retrieved December 9, 2018 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/11/181128082753.htm

BUGGING OUT FOR NEWLY DISCOVERED FRUIT FLY CULTURE

By Alyssa Quinlan

A groundbreaking new study at the Centre de Recherches sur la Cognition Animale in Toulouse, France revealed that contrary to popular belief, organisms other than humans possess the ability to maintain something resembling a culture.

In the experiment, researchers set five standards that a behavior must meet to be considered “cultural.” Of these five criteria, the first stated that the behavior must passed down generation to generation through observation, and another held that it must be directly copied. The remaining three requirements require that the behavior must be memorized over a long period of time, involve an individual’s characteristics, and be common within the population.

While studying Drosophila, or fruit flies, researchers found that these five criteria were indeed met in terms of the transmission of sexual preferences through generations. When compared with computer simulations, the mating choices made by the flies in question matched up perfectly with the predicted results, therefore confirming the hypothesis that Drosophila observe and pass down preferences in choosing mates. Beyond that, researchers also noted the importance of conformism in the maintenance of culture – especially within the Drosophila genus.

Not only do these results affirm the widely held belief that culture is strictly limited to humans, but they also raise questions about the extent of its affect on evolution and ultimately set the foundation for a new field of research regarding animal culture.

 

CNRS. "Toolbox for studying the existence of animal cultures: Fruit flies can transmit their sexual preferences culturally, study shows." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 29 November 2018. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/11/181129142447.htm>.

Obstructive Sleep Apnea Can Lead to Cardiac Abnormalities, Which Are More Pronounced in Women

By Kurtis Chien-Young

Obstructive sleep apnea is a disease characterized by pauses in breathing during sleep. It occurs when the throat relaxes and expands, blocking the airways and preventing air flow into the lungs temporarily. The blockage is characterized by loud snoring and gasps for air, and people who experience it often wake up with dryness around the mouth, as well as headaches and fatigue during the day.

Obstructive sleep apnea also increases the risk for ventricular abnormalities in the heart, and a recent analysis of participants who volunteered at the UK Biobank found that snoring was correlated with increased growth of the left ventricle of the heart. This increase in mass requires the heart to pump harder in order to generate the same cardiac output as before. The researchers also discovered that, among snorers, women had significantly greater left ventricular masses, possibly suggesting that women experience obstructive sleep apnea differently and could be more affected by it.

Dr. Curta, one of the researchers involved in the study, noted that obstructive sleep apnea was underdiagnosed among the research participants, and recommended snorers to go see their physicians for screening. If diagnosed, treatment options include surgery to remove some obstructing tissue, breathing machines that apply constant pressure to prevent obstruction, and weight loss, if applicable.

 

Radiological Society of North America. "Snoring poses greater cardiac risk to women." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 29 November 2018. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/11/181129084708.htm>.

Glowing in the Dark: New Uses for Iron Molecules

By Annmarie Hoch

Scientists have used metal molecules as sources of fuel or energy before. However, the metals that have been previously used to power photocatalysts and solar cells have been rare, expensive,  and difficult to acquire. Examples of these metals include ruthenium and osmium. In Sweden, researchers have been working for the past five years to make a metal molecule that can perform these tasks but is easier to acquire. They have succeeded by adapting an iron molecule to suit their needs. Iron is a very common metal and much easier to acquire than the other metals used in this project. The molecule’s design maximizes its ability to hold and carry energy. The newly designed iron molecules have the potential to be used for processing solar fuels or for use in lights, as the iron molecule can glow for a significant period of time. The researchers were very surprised that the project only took five years to be successful, having expected to spend ten years on the iron molecule. This molecule could make it much easier to adapt metal molecules into the production of fuel and energy.

 

Lund University. (2018, November 30). Brilliant iron molecule could provide cheaper solar energy. ScienceDaily. Retrieved December 6, 2018 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/11/181130111640.htm

Eating Do’s and Don’ts: A Low-Carb Diet May Stimulate Metabolic Rate

By Jacqueline Katz

Eating do’s and don’ts have been in flux for decades. But, policy and dietary guidelines have generally endowed the theory that calorie restriction stimulates weight loss. A recent finding published in the BMJ contradicts this conventional idea.

This attention-grabbing study is among the largest and most costly feeding trials and reports observed metabolic differences among adults on low- and high-carb diets. The investigation’s key discovery was that overweight participants who replaced calories in carbohydrates with those in healthy fats burned approximately 250 additional calories each day. It is commonly accepted among the scientific community that refined carbohydrates drive insulin levels, which promotes fat storage. The study also measured the effect of carbohydrate intake on ghrelin, a hormone secreted in the stomach that lowers energy expenditure. Individuals on the low-carb diet saw notable decreases in ghrelin production, which is cited as one reason why decreasing carbohydrate consumption prompted an increase metabolic rate.

The authors of the study also stipulate that this research should not be taken as an excuse to avoid fruits and unprocessed whole grain products; the trial primarily condemned refined carbohydrates with added sugars. This study may inform the way in which we tackle the obesity epidemic plaguing the United States, although more research to corroborate this conclusion must be completed before public health policy is changed to reflect this finding.

O'connor, A. (2018, November 14). How a Low-Carb Diet Might Help You Maintain a Healthy Weight. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/14/well/eat/how-a-low-carb-diet-might-help-you-maintain-a-healthy-weight.html