Posts about university research

The Challenge of Protecting Us from Evolving Bacterial Threats

I have long been concerned about the practices we continue to use increasing the risks of “superbugs.” I have written about this many times, including: The Overuse of Antibiotics Carries Large Long Term Risks (2005)Are you ready for a world without antibiotics? (2010), Antibiotics Breed Superbugs Faster Than Expected (2010), Entirely New Antibiotic (platensimycin) Developed (2006), Our Poor Antibiotic Practices Have Sped the Evolution of Resistance to Our Last-Resort Antibiotic (2015).

I do also believe the wonderful breakthroughs we make when we invest in science and engineering have made our lives much better and have the potential to continue to do so in many ways, including in dealing with the risks of superbugs. But this is something that requires great effort by many smart people and a great deal of money. It will only happen if we put in the effort.

Winning war against ‘superbugs’

hey won this particular battle, or at least gained some critical intelligence, not by designing a new antibiotic, but by interfering with the metabolism of the bacterial “bugs” — E. coli in this case — and rendering them weaker in the face of existing antibiotics

ROS, or “reactive oxygen species,” include molecules like superoxide and hydrogen peroxide that are natural byproducts of normal metabolic activity. Bacteria usually cope just fine with them, but too many can cause serious damage or even kill the cell. In fact, Collins’ team revealed a few years ago the true antibiotic modus operandi: they kill bacteria in part by ramping up ROS production.

We need to continue to pursue many paths to protecting us from rapidly evolving bacterial risks. Many promising research results will fail to produce usable solutions. We need to try many promising ideas to find useful tools and strategies to protect human health.

An Eukaryote that Completely Lacks Mitochondria

If you don’t have any idea what the title means that is ok. I probably wouldn’t have until the last 15 years when I found how interesting biology is thanks to the internet and wonderful resources online making biology interesting. I hope you find learning about biology as interesting as I do.

Look, Ma! No Mitochondria

Mitochondria have their own DNA, and scientists believe they were once free-living bacteria that got engulfed by primitive, ancient cells that were evolving to become the complex life forms we know and love today.

What they learned is that instead of relying on mitochondria to assemble iron-sulfur clusters, these cells use a different kind of machinery. And it looks like they acquired it from bacteria.

The researchers say this is the first example of any eukaryote that completely lacks mitochondria.

However, the results do not negate the idea that the acquisition of a mitochondrion was an important and perhaps defining event in the evolution of eukaryotic cells, he adds.

That’s because it seems clear that this organism’s ancestors had mitochondria that were then lost after the cells acquired their non-mitochondrial system for making iron-sulfur clusters.

Biology is amazing and mitochondria are one of the many amazing details. I wish so much that my education could have given biology a tiny fraction of the interest I have found it in after school.

Related: Human Gene Origins: 37% Bacterial, 35% Animal, 28% EukaryoticOne Species’ Genome Discovered Inside Another’sParasite Evolved from Cnidarians (Jellyfish etc.)Plants, Unikonts, Excavates and SARs

International Science Research Scholar Grants

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Wellcome Trust, and Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation have announced the International Research Scholars Program which aims to support up to 50 outstanding early career scientists worldwide. The program’s aim is to help develop scientific talent worldwide.

The new international competition is seeking top early career researchers from a wide variety of biomedical research fields. Applicants must have started their first independent research position on or after April 1, 2009. Awardees will be invited to participate in research meetings with scientists supported by the funders. These meetings facilitate the exchange of ideas, stimulate new research, and provide an opportunity for collaborative endeavors within the international scientific community.

  • Awardees will receive a total of $650,000 over five years.
  • Applications are due June 30, 2016.
  • Awardees will be notified in April 2017.

HHMI and its partners have committed a total of $37.4 million for the International Research Scholars Program and will award each scientist who is selected a total of $650,000 over five years. The competition is open to scientists who have trained in the U.S. or United Kingdom for at least one year. Additionally, eligible scientists must have run their own labs for less than seven years, and work in one of the eligible countries.

Nieng Yan

Although Nieng Yan had several grants when she started her lab at Tsinghua University in 2007, she barely had enough money to pay her eight lab members. “In China, there is a limit on the percentage of a grant that you can use to pay people — your graduate students, your postdocs, your technicians, your assistants — to a decent level,” she explains. After struggling to balance her budget for several years, Yan’s scientific achievements and potential landed her an international grant from HHMI in 2012. “The amount of money provided by Hughes is relatively small compared to other programs, but it has the advantage that you can freely decide what to do with it,” says Yan. In fact, HHMI’s science officers encouraged Yan to use her five-year International Early Career Award (IECS) to cover the cost of paying her lab team, explaining that the money could be used in any way that assisted her research. Today, Yan has 15 people working in her lab helping to elucidate the structures of proteins that move molecules in and out of cells. The protein channels and transporters they study are mutated in a number of diseases — including diabetes and cancer — and understanding how they work could help in the development of drugs that block their ill effects. For example, the team recently solved the structure of GLUT1 – a glucose transporter that is often overexpressed in malignant tumor cells. Their data may provide clues for how to inhibit the transporter and perhaps even reveal a way to use it to deliver chemotherapeutic drugs. Photo Credit: Kevin Wolf (AP)

Countries that are not eligible for this competition include the G7 countries (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, United Kingdom and United States), as well as countries identified by the U.S. Department of Treasury, Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) as being subject to comprehensive country or territory-wide sanctions or where current OFAC regulations prohibit U.S. persons or entities from engaging in the funding arrangements contemplated by this grant program. For this program, such sanctioned countries or territories currently include Iran, North Korea, Sudan, Syria, and the Crimea region of Ukraine.

Related: Directory of Science and Engineering Scholarships and FellowshipsFunding Sources for Independent Postdoctoral Research Projects in BiologyScientific Research Spending Cuts in the USA and Increases Overseas are Tempting Scientists to Leave the USA (2013)HHMI Expands Support of Postdoctoral Scientists (2009)Science, Engineering and Math Fellowships

Webcasts on the Human Microbiome

The human microbiome is a very interesting aspect of our health and biology.

The 99% figure they quote is mainly silly. It might be technically accurate, but it is much more misleading than accurate (if it is accurate). We have more non-human cells than human but those cells are much smaller and we are overwhelmingly made up of human cells by weight (95+%).

The complexity of healthy bodies is far from understood. It is interesting to watch our understanding of the balancing act going on inside of us. Many foreign “invaders” are critical to our health.

Related: People are Superorganisms With Microbiomes of Thousands of SpeciesPeople Have More Bacterial Cells than Human CellsFighting Superbugs with Superhero BugsWe Have Thousands of Viruses In Us All the Time

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200,000 People Die Every Year in Europe from Adverse Drug Effects – How Can We Improve?

A new integrated computational method helps predicting adverse drug reaction more reliably than with traditional computing methods. This improved ability to foresee the possible adverse effects of drugs may entail saving many lives in the future.

Most computer tools employed today to detect possible adverse effects of compounds that are candidates for new medicines are based on detecting labile fragments in the drug’s structure. These fragments can potentially transform to form reactive metabolites, which can have toxic properties. This is what is known as idiosyncratic toxicity and is a big headache for the pharmaceutical industry, as it tends to be detected in late development stages of the drug and even when it is already on the market, often causing the drug to be withdrawn.

Jordi Mestres, coordinator of the IMIM and UPF research group on Systems Pharmacology at the Biomedical Informatics Program (GRIB) states ‘With this study we have contributed to complementing the detection of these quite unstable fragments, with information on the mechanism of action of the drug, based on three aspects: similarity to other medicines, prediction of their pharmacological profile, and interference with specific biological pathways. The optimal integration of these four aspects results in a clear improvement of our ability to anticipate adverse effects with higher confidence, which entails an extremely positive impact on society’.

In Europe, nearly 200,000 people die every year from adverse drug reactions, seven times more than in traffic accidents. An estimated 5% of hospitalisations are due to adverse effects and they are the fifth most common cause of hospital death. In addition, elderly people tend to take more than one drug at the same time, which multiplies the chances of suffering from adverse effects due to potential drug-drug interactions. In an increasingly aging society, this problem is becoming much more serious.

I think interactions is a hugely important area that needs a great deal more research. Doing so is very complex, which means it isn’t surprising so much more work is needed. The work of my father (and George Box and others) on multi-factorial experimentation is a powerful tool to aid this work (and that connection is likely one of the reasons I find the area of interactions so interesting – along with the realization there is so much benefit possible if we focus in that area more). Previous post on this Curious Cat Science and Engineering blog: Introduction to Fractional Factorial Designed Experiments.

The human and financial costs of adverse effects are very high. That is why the discovery of new medicines is increasingly focused more on predicting possible adverse effects at the initial stages of developing a new drug. This work hopes to contribute to setting the path toward a new generation of more reliable computational tools with regard to predicting the adverse effects of therapeutically-relevant small molecules. Advancing large-scale predictive safety at the pre-clinical phase is now becoming closer than ever, with expectations to lead to safer drugs for the entire population.

The research is published in closed science journal so I don’t link to it. I happily link to open science publications. Read the full press release which includes a link to the closed science journal.

Related: Lifestyle Drugs and RiskRoot Cause, Interactions, Robustness and Design of ExperimentsOne factor at a time (OFAT) Versus Factorial DesignsThe Purpose of Mulit-Factorial Designed Experiments11 Year Old Using Design of ExperimentsOver-reliance on Prescription Drugs to Aid Children’s Sleep?

In Many Crops Ants Can Provide Pest Protection Superior or Equal to Chemicals at a Much Lower Cost

Ants are as Effective as pesticides

The review [of over 70 studies] was conducted by Aarhus University’s Dr Joachim Offenberg, an ecologist who has studied ants for almost 20 years. It includes studies of more than 50 pest species on nine crops across eight countries in Africa, South-East Asia and Australia.

Most of the studies in Offenberg’s review are on weaver ants (Oecophylla), a tropical species which lives in trees and weaves ball-shaped nests from leaves. Because weaver ants live in their host trees’ canopy, near the flowers and fruit that need protection from pests, they are good pest controllers in tropical orchards.

All farmers need to do is collect ant nests from the wild, hang them in plastic bags among their tree crops and feed them a sugar solution while they build their new nests. Once a colony is established, farmers then connect the trees that are part of the colony with aerial ‘ant walkways’ made from string or lianas.

After that, the ants need little, except for some water in the dry season (which can be provided by hanging old plastic bottles among the trees), pruning trees that belong to different colonies so that the ants do not fight, and avoiding insecticide sprays.

The review shows that crops such as cashew and mango can be exceptionally well protected from pests by weaver ants.

One three-year study in Australia recorded cashew yields 49% higher in plots patrolled by ants compared with those protected by chemicals. Nut quality was higher too, so net income was 71% higher with ants than with chemicals.

Similar studies in Australian mango crops found that ants could produce the same yield as chemical control, but because the ants were cheaper, and fruit quality better, net income from mangoes produced with ant protection was 73% higher.

Those crops are special cases in which the ants are vastly superior. But in many other cases ants are as effective and much cheaper than chemical options. Different species of ants are suited to protecting different types of drops. Weaver ants require a canopy, other ants can protect crops without a canopy.

I hope more farmers adopt ants to help protect their crop yields.

Related: Pigs Instead of PesticidesWhy Don’t All Ant Species Replace Queens in the Colony, Since Some DoHow To Make Your Own Pesticide with Ingredients from Your KitchenAnother Bee Study Finds CCD is Likely Due to Combination of Factors Including Pesticides (2013)

Chimpanzees Use Spears to Hunt Bush Babies

Video replaced with new one because original was removed 🙁

Savanna Chimpanzees, Pan troglodytes verus, Hunt with Tools by Jill D. Pruetz and Paco Bertolani

Although tool use is known to occur in species ranging from naked mole rats to owls, chimpanzees are the most accomplished tool users. The modification and use of tools during hunting, however, is still considered to be a uniquely human trait among primates. Here, we report the first account of habitual tool use during vertebrate hunting by nonhumans. At the Fongoli site in Senegal, we observed ten different chimpanzees use tools to hunt prosimian prey in 22 bouts. This includes immature chimpanzees and females, members of age-sex classes not normally characterized by extensive hunting behavior. Chimpanzees made 26 different tools, and we were able to recover and analyze 12 of these.

Tool construction entailed up to five steps, including trimming the tool tip to a point. Tools were used in the manner of a spear, rather than a probe or rousing tool. This new information on chimpanzee tool use has important implications for the evolution of tool use and construction for hunting in the earliest hominids, especially given our observations that females and immature chimpanzees exhibited this behavior more frequently than adult males.

The full paper, from 2007, was available as a pdf when I visited (I don’t really trust these publishers and what articles by professors they will block access to later when they don’t clearly say it is open access – in fact the journal broke the link on the post I made about this in 2007 now that I checked – sigh).

The full paper isn’t filled with overly complex scientific jargon (as scientific papers can be). In that sense it is an easy read; it is a bit graphic for those that are squeamish.

Dr. Jill Pruetz maintains an interesting blog the Chimpanzees she studies: Fongoli Savanna Chimpanzee Project

Related: Chimps Used Stones as HammersOrangutan Attempts to Hunt Fish with SpearBird Using Bread as Bait to Catch FishCrows can Perform as Well as 7 to 10-year-olds on cause-and-effect Water Displacement Tasks

Scientific Inquiry Leads to Using Fluoride for Healthy Teeth

This webcast, from the wonderful SciShow, explores how we discovered fluoride helps prevent tooth decay and how we then used that knowledge and finally discovered why it worked.

I love stories of how we learn for observing what is happening. We don’t always need to innovate by thinking up creative new ideas. If we are observant we can pick up anomalies and then examine the situation to find possible explanations and then experiment to see if those explanations prove true.

When working this way we often are seeing correlation and then trying to figure out which part of the correlation is an actual cause. So in this dental example, a dentist noticed his patients had bad brown stains on their teeth than others populations did.

After investigation the natural fluoridation of the water in Colorado Springs, Colorado, USA seemed like it might be an explanation (though they didn’t understand the chemistry that would cause that result). They also explored the sense that the discolored teeth were resistant to decay.

Even without knowing why it is possible to test if the conditions are the cause. Scientists discovered by reducing the level of fluoridation in the water the ugly brown stains could be eliminated (these stains took a long time to develop and didn’t develop in adults). Eventually scientists ran an experiment in Grand Rapids, Michigan and found fluoridation of the water achieved amazing results for dental health. The practice of fluoridation was then adopted widely and resulted in greatly improved dental health.

In 1901, Frederick McKay, a recent dental school graduate, opened a dental practice in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He was interested in what he saw and sought out other dentists to explore the situation with him but had little success. In 1909, he found some success when renowned dental researcher Dr. G.V. Black collaborate with him.
Dr. H. Trendley Dean, head of the Dental Hygiene Unit at the National Institute of Health built on their work when he began investigating the epidemiology of fluorosis in 1931. It wasn’t until 1945 that the Grand Rapids test started. Science can take a long time to move forward.

Only later did scientists unravel why this worked. The fluoride reacts to create a stronger enamel than if the fluoride is not present. Which results in the enamal being less easily dissolved by bacteria.
Health tip: use a dental stimudent (dental picks) or floss your teeth to maintain healthy gums and prevent tooth decay. It makes a big difference.

Related: Why does orange juice taste so bad after brushing your teeth?Microbiologist Develops Mouthwash That Targets Only Harmful Cavity Causing BacteriaUsing Nanocomposites to Improve Dental Filling PerformanceFinding a Dentist in Chiang Mai, ThailandFalse Teeth For CatsWhy Does Hair Turn Grey as We Age?

We Have Thousands of Viruses In Us All the Time

Biology and the amazing interactions within a human body are amazing. Our bodies are teeming with other life (and almost life – viruses). All these microbes have a drastic impact on our health and those impacts are not always bad.

A Virus In Your Mouth Helps Fight The Flu

Hidden inside all of us are likely thousands of viruses — maybe more. They just hang out, harmlessly. We don’t even know they’re there.

But every once in a while, one of these viral inhabitants might help us out.

Young people infected with a type of herpes virus have a better immune response to the flu vaccine than those not infected, scientists at Stanford University report Wednesday. In mice, the virus directly stops influenza itself.

We’re talking about a ubiquitous critter, called cytomegalovirus. About half of all Americans carry it. And so do nearly 100 percent of people in developing countries.

In younger people, CMV had the opposite effect that Davis had predicted: “The virus ramped up the immune system to give better protection from pathogens,” Mark Davis says. “We tested only for the flu, but I speculate it protects against everything.”

So should we all go out and get infected with CMV? No way! Davis exclaims.

You see, CMV has a dark side. It can become dangerous if the immune system is suppressed, which happens after an organ transplant or during treatments for autoimmune disorders. CMV is also a concern for pregnant woman. It’s the top viral cause of birth defects worldwide.

The human microbiome is incredible and teams with thousands of species (bacteria, viruses, members of domain Archaea, yeasts, single-celled eukaryotes, helminth parasites and bacteriophages). The complexity of interactions between all the elements of what is in our bodies and cells is one of the things that makes health care so challenging. It is also fascinating how these interactions provide benefits and costs as they work within our bodies.

The fact that we have evolved in concert with all these interactions is one of the big problems with anti-biotics. Antibiotics are miraculous when they work, but they can also decimate our natural micro-biomes which does create risks.

I would have thought Stanford wasn’t still supporting closed science 🙁 Sadly this research is not published in an open science manner.

Related: Foreign Cells Outnumber Human Cells in Our BodiesMicrobes Flourish In Healthy PeopleTracking the Ecosystem Within UsPeople Have More Bacterial Cells than Human CellsCats Control Rats With ParasitesSkin Bacteria

2014 Ranking of the World’s Best Research Universities

Shanghai’s Jiao Tong University produces an annual ranking of research universities. The methodology values publications and faculty awards (Nobel and Fields) which belies the focus on ranking research not for example the quality of education provided.

You could argue one measure does partially address teaching as the Nobel and Fields prizes to alumni are created to the institution (that is separate from a measure of faculty that receive those honors). I would agree it partially measure the education though it also measures the ability of that school to attract the absolute best candidates (whether they would have been just as successful going elsewhere is a fair question).

Results from the 2014 rankings of top 500 universities with the number of schools by country:

location Top 100 % of World
% of World GDP % of top 500
USA 52     4.5%   22.2%  29.2%
United Kingdom   8  0.9  3.5 7.6
Germany   4  1.1  5.0 7.8
Canada   4  0.5  2.4 4.2
France   4  0.9  3.8 4.2
Japan   3  1.8  7.8 3.8
Australia   4  0.3  1.5 3.8
China   0  19.2  11.7 8.8
Netherlands   4  0.2  1.3 2.6
Sweden   4  0.1  0.8 2.2
Switzerland   5  0.1  0.8 1.4
South Korea   0  .7  1.7 2.0
India   0  17.0  1.9 0.2

The top countries for top 100 and top 500 schools are listed above, but I skip over many after the top 7 or 8 to include a few countries I like to watch, see the ranking site for the full list. Country population and GDP data were taken from the World Development Indicators 2013, by the World Bank.

There is little change in top 100 since 2008, which I think is a good sign, it wouldn’t make much sense to have radical shifts quickly in this type of ranking. The USA lost 2 schools in the top 100, UK lost 3, Germany lost 2, Switzerland gained 2, Netherlands gain 2…

There is more change in the top 500 where changes are more sensible (there is probably not much separating schools ranked in the 300’s from those in the 500’s so variation and strong pushes (from countries like China) can have an impact. China gained 14 more schools in the top 500. China’s GDP also increased from 6.6% of global GDP to 11.7%.

University of Wisconsin – Madison is 24th, it was 17th in 2008 My father taught there while I grew up.
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Defying Textbook Science, Study Finds Proteins Built Without DNA Instructions

Open any introductory biology textbook and one of the first things you’ll learn is that our DNA spells out the instructions for making proteins, tiny machines that do much of the work in our body’s cells. Results from a recent study show for the first time that the building blocks of a protein, called amino acids, can be assembled without blueprints – DNA and an intermediate template called messenger RNA (mRNA). A team of researchers has observed a case in which another protein specifies which amino acids are added.

“This surprising discovery reflects how incomplete our understanding of biology is,” says first author Peter Shen, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow in biochemistry at the University of Utah. “Nature is capable of more than we realize.”

To put the new finding into perspective, it might help to think of the cell as a well-run factory. Ribosomes are machines on a protein assembly line, linking together amino acids in an order specified by the genetic code. When something goes wrong, the ribosome can stall, and a quality control crew is summoned to the site. To clean up the mess, the ribosome is disassembled, the blueprint is discarded, and the partly made protein is recycled.

Yet this study reveals a surprising role for one member of the quality control team, a protein conserved from yeast to man named Rqc2. Before the incomplete protein is recycled, Rqc2 prompts the ribosomes to add just two amino acids (of a total of 20) – alanine and threonine – over and over, and in any order. Think of an auto assembly line that keeps going despite having lost its instructions. It picks up what it can and slaps it on.

“In this case, we have a protein playing a role similar to that filled by mRNA,” says Adam Frost, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor at University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) and adjunct professor of biochemistry at the University of Utah. He shares senior authorship with Jonathan Weissman, Ph.D., a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator at UCSF, and Onn Brandman, Ph.D., at Stanford University. “I love this story because it blurs the lines of what we thought proteins could do.”

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