VIDEO: Scientists watch the formation of memory-making proteins

For the first time ever, scientists have witnessed the formation of a protein crucial to memory formation.

In a “technological tour-de-fouce,” scientists at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University used advanced imaging techniques and a never-before-seen mouse model to observe the formation and transportation of beta-actin protein, which is thought to be crucial to strong synaptic connections. Two papers published in Science report on the findings.

Hye Yoon Park, PhD and postdoctoral student, spent three years developing a mouse model that produces fluorescently tagged messenger RNA–the molecule that provides instruction for protein-synthesis–for beta-actin protein.

Dendrites–the spindly “fingers” of neurons–come together at synapses, structures that allow the transportation of neurotransmitters from one neuron to the next. Memories are thought be formed when synapses are strengthened and stabilized by electrical impulses, which change the shape of the dendrites. Beta-actin is thought to play a role in the shape-shifting of dendrites and thus the strengthening of synapses–and memories.

When she stimulated the mouse’s hippocampus—the area of the brain that forms and stores memories—Park observed beta-actin mRNA forming in the nuclei of neurons and travelling down to the dendrites, where the protein would be synthesized.

The second paper describes the work of graduate student Adina Buxbaum, who made a remarkable discovery about the unique way in which neurons regulate the production of beta-actin protein.

“Having a long, attenuated structure means that neurons face a logistical problem,” said Robert Singer, Ph.D., the senior author of both papers and professor and co-chair of Einstein’s department of anatomy & structural biology and co-director of the Gruss Lipper Biophotonics Center at Einstein, in a press release. “Their beta-actin mRNA molecules must travel throughout the cell, but neurons need to control their mRNA so that it makes beta-actin protein only in certain regions at the base of dendritic spines.”

To prevent the synthesis of more protein than needed, it seems that the mRNA is “packaged” into tiny granules. When neurons are stimulated, these granules fall apart, freeing up mRNA for synthesis. Buxbaum observed that after a few minutes, the free-floating mRNA becomes repackaged.

It seems that neurons have developed an “ingenious” method to control their memory-making proteins.


Needle-less, on-demand vaccines: A new frontier for nanoparticles

Chemical engineers at the University of Washington have developed a new type of vaccine that could be a “game changer” in the fight against the most difficult-to-treat viral infections. Their vaccine, which could be made quickly, cheaply and be administered without a needle, uses nanoparticle technology to create long-lasting immune responses. So far, the vaccine has shown promising results in mice.

“What we wanted to do was essentially find out possible ways of producing vaccines on the spot,” says chemical engineer and lead author of the study, François Baneyx.

Traditional vaccines are made en masse in centralized locations, far away from where they might be needed. A vaccine made on-demand would be invaluable to physicians in remote places, especially in developing countries.

“For instance, a field doctor could see the beginnings of an epidemic, make vaccine doses right away, and blanket vaccinate the entire population in the affected area to prevent the spread of an epidemic,” Baneyx said in a press release.

Vaccines work by preparing your immune system for a viral attack. When you get vaccinated, you’re injected with a small dose of a microbe, which has special surface proteins called antigens that are recognized by the immune system as foreign invaders. Large cells called macrophages deliver antigens to the lymphatic system, where T cells and B cells are activated and sent out to the fight the invasion. Once the microbes have been destroyed by the lymphocytes, some of them are converted into memory cells, which will “remember” the microbe if it ever enters your system again.

Baneyx and his team were inspired by the natural process of mineralization, the process by which animals like mollusks build their shells, and engineered a protein that can mineralize an inorganic material—in this case, calcium phosphate, a compound found in tooth and bone. The resulting nanoparticles consist of a core of calcium phosphate with a “shell” made up of the engineered protein, which also acts as the antigen. (Nanoparticles are categorized as less than 100 nanometers in diameter. To put it in perspective, a strand of hair is 75,000 nanometers thick).

In a study, the researchers injected one group of mice with the vaccinating nanoparticles and another group of mice with the protein alone. Eight months later, the team infected the mice with a derivative of the influenza virus and found that the mice that had received the nanoparticle showed a heightened production of a specific type of T-cell, called cytotoxic—or “killer”—T cells.

The nanoparticles are so small that they can freely enter the lymphatic system, according to the study. Baneyx suspects that once the nanoparticles are in the lymph nodes, they are able to directly stimulate special immune response cells called dendritic cells, which are “powerful inducers” of T-cell responses.

In a real life scenario, the vaccine could be produced by mixing a freeze-dried protein—engineered based on proteins that exist on the surface of pathogens—with a solution of water, calcium and phosphate to produce the nanoparticles. They could then be administered by a disposable application system like a bandage or a patch.

Baneyx emphasized that the promising results have only been shown in mice, and that this vaccine has not been made for humans yet. The research was published in the journal Nanomedicine.

Predicting Literacy Success: A Quantitative Exploration

Remember in high school when teachers told you to use more exciting verbs and adverbs because that’s what makes good writing? Why, they proclaimed, should a character just “say” something when he can “exclaim,” “cry” or “cheer” something?

Turns out your high school writing teacher might have been wrong about this one.

A new paper from Stony Brook Department of Computer Science has found a correlation between successful literature and writing style—and it doesn’t look good for exciting verbs and adverbs. Assistant Professor Yejin Choi, a co-author of the paper titled “Success with Style: Using Writing Style to Predict the Success of Novels,” examined 800 novels from eight different genres and found several predictors of literary success.

Less successful books contain a higher percentage of verbs, adverbs and foreign words (so maybe trying to sound sophisticated by peppering your stories with nods to French cuisine isn’t the best choice). Less successful books also use extreme descriptions, typical locations and “rely more on topical words,” like ‘love,’ that “could be almost cliché.” Verbs that explicitly describe actions or emotions—like “wanted,” “took,” or “promised,” appear more often in less successful books, while simpler verbs like “say” or “said” appear in more successful books. More successful books also make frequent use of adjectives and conjunctions such as “and,” “but,” and “or” to join sentences.

Choi and her colleagues defined “success” by download counts from Project Gutenberg, a donation-run website that offers over 42,000 titles for free download in electronic format.

The researchers took 1000 sentences from the beginning of each book. They performed systematic analyses based on lexical and syntactic features that have been proven effective in Natural Language Processing (NLP) tasks such as authorship attribution, genre detection, gender identification, and native language detection.

 “To the best of our knowledge, our work is the first that provides quantitative insights into the connection between the writing style and success of literacy works,” Choi said. “Our work examines a considerably larger collection—800 books—over multiple genres, providing insights into lexical, syntactic, and discourse patterns that characterize the writing styles commonly shared among the successful literature.” Their analytic system was able to predict, with 84% accuracy, which books were more successful.

Choi and her colleagues also made an unexpected discovery: readability and literary success “correlate in opposite directions.” “We conjecture that the conceptual complexity of highly successful literary work might require syntactic complexity that goes against readability,” Choi said.

Finally, my struggles reading The Classics are validated.

Scientists introduce mammoth DNA into bacteria…wait, what?!

This is a SUMMARY of Ed Yong’s piece “The Bacteria that Absorbed Mammoth DNA.” Link is below!

Researchers at the University of Copenhagen found that bacteria can incorporate ancient DNA into their own genetic code, giving insight to the way bacteria can evolve quickly.

In his blog Not Exactly Rocket Science, Ed Yong describes the ability of microbes to pick up DNA from their surroundings. There are fragments of DNA everywhere, coming from living things that have died and decomposed. Most of “the fragments are far too small to include entire genes,” Yong wrote, but the research gives scientists insight into the ability for bacteria to adapt and evolve quickly.

Soren Overballe-Petersen and his team in Copenhagen knew that bacteria could incorporate small, damaged fragments of DNA into their own genetic code, and they “wondered if bacteria could take up extremely old DNA too.” The only problem, Yong wrote, was that it’s hard to find DNA from ancient microbes.

What Overballe-Petersen had was something they knew was really old: a 43,000 year old mammoth bone. The microbes were able to pick up this genetic material and insert it into their DNA. “This genetic material,” Yong wrote, “broken and shattered by many millennia of decay, is now back in living cells again.”

The research could give insight into problems like antibiotic-resistant bacteria that devastate hospitals, Yong wrote. Killing living bacteria in hospital rooms doesn’t necessarily kill the DNA, which could get ‘picked up’ by bacteria again, Overballe-Petersen said.

Read Yong’s original post here: The Bacteria That Absorbed Mammoth DNA

Sale of progressive climate change data darling to ‘Monsatan’ stirs enviro fears

Sale of progressive climate change data darling to ‘Monsatan’ stirs enviro fears

My new post at the Genetic Literacy Project!

Have you heard of the Climate Corporation? It’s a company that sells real-time weather data and financial insurance to farmers around the world. It was recently purchased by Monsanto for nearly $1 billion! A lot of people are now saying that Monsanto wants to “profit off climate change. But in a letter by David Friedberg, Climate Corporation’s CEO, expertly explains why Monsanto is not as evil as everyone thinks it is. The letter was published with permission by Michael Specter online in New Yorker magazine.

Space jellies, zombie guppies and urination physics: A weird week for science

1. Jellyfish dizzy on their return to planet Earth

Back in 1991, the shuttle Columbia carried 2,478 jellyfish polyps to the International Space Station, the Atlantic Magazine‘s Megan Garber reported yesterday. By the missions end, there were about 60,000 jellyfish orbiting the Earth.

Why send jellyfish to space? Well, to find out what would happen if a human baby were born in space and then returned home, of course.

Jellyfish and humans don’t share much in terms of body parts, but one thing they do share is those tiny crystals that help us determine motion and gravity. In humans, these crystals are made of calcium carbonate and are located in the ear, where they stimulate nerve cells and communicate to the brain movement and orientation. In jellyfish, these crystals are made of calcium sulfate line the edges of the animal’s bell.

After being raised in space, the jellies were returned to Earth and observed. Unfortunately for those hypothetical space babies, the jellies did not enjoy an uneventful homecoming. As biologist RR Helms at Deep Sea News reports, the jellies were essentially suffering from a permanent case of vertigo: their motor abilities were hindered and their movements were not similar to those of Earth-born jellies.

Read the full stories here: I Don’t Think You’re Ready for This, Jelly” and “Jellyfish go to space, say it was “meh, kinda sucky”

2. Zombie baby guppies born from dead fathers

In a recent issue of the Journal of Experimental Biology, Andy Turko reports that researchers have discovered that 25% of all guppies in a Trinidad river population were conceived posthumously…after the biological father died.

Female Trinidadian guppies can store sperm up to a full year, the last male to fertilize the female’s eggs generally wins in the genetic race. In their investigation of stored sperm in female guppies, Andres Lopez-Sepulcre and his team of international scientists painstakingly tracked a changing population of guppies at a site in the Guanapo River in Trinidad. They tracked who died when and who parented whom by taking scale samples from baby guppies and determining their genetic parentage:

The research team found that almost 50% of reproductively active males sired young after they had died and, amazingly, over 30% of reproductive males were successful only after they were dead. Some offspring were even fathered by males that had been dead for 8 months.

Female guppies live almost five times as long as male guppies, so the researchers think this tactic may have evolved to protect genetic material of the short lived males. From the female prospective, Turko reports:

[T]he researchers proposed that using sperm from many males, both dead and alive, would produce offspring with higher genetic diversity. In a fluctuating habitat like a Trinidadian stream, this should increase the odds of producing some offspring that are genetically well suited to whatever environmental conditions the future has in store.


3. Law of urination discovered

Have you ever wondered how to calculate the rate of urine flow for any mammal? Well, wonder no more! New Scientist‘s Jacob Aron reported yesterday about a team of scientists from the Georgia Institute of Technology, who were filming animals at a local zoo when they noticed that animals of “various sizes, both male and female, took a similar time to empty their bladders.” Like any curious scientist would do, Patricia Yang and her team decided to investigate the phenomenon.

Turns out mammals like dogs, cows, goats and elephants all take about 21 seconds to urinate. It has to do with bladder size, urethra length and that mysterious force of the universe: gravity.

In this case size matters, as it means urine feels the pull of gravity stronger at the bottom of the elephant’s urethra. This means that as it travels down the pipe, the urine accelerates and its flow rate rises, resulting in an elephant’s large bladder being emptied in a similar time to those of smaller animals.

Medium-sized animals like dogs and goats have shorter urethras, so get less of a gravitational boost: their flow is slower. In addition, they have smaller bladders. The result of both effects is that they empty their bladders in roughly the same time as elephants.

The law of urination, as Aron reports, says that “the time a mammal takes to empty a full bladder is proportional to the animal’s mass raised to the power of sixth.”

Read the full story here: “Universal law of urination found in mammals” (there’s even a video!)