Posts about Life Science

Dr. Steve Goodman’s Work as a Field Biologist in Madagascar

Dr. Steve Goodman‘s work is a legendary Field Biologist and spends 9-10 months out of the year conducting research in other countries, with a focus on Madagascar for nearly 30 years. Learn more about the future of Madagascar’s biodiversity and research.

This video is from the great Brain Scoop channel with Emily Graslie; if you are not following that channel I highly recommend doing so for people interested in science.

Related: The Michael Jordan of Field BiologyInsect ArchitectureNew Life Form Found at South African Truck StopNeil Degrasse Tyson: Scientifically Literate See a Different World

Stanford Research Scientists Discover 99% of the Microbes Inside Us are Unknown to Science

Readers of this blog know I am fascinated by the human microbiome. It is amazing how much of our biology is determined by entities within us that are not us (at least not our DNA) (bacteria, viruses etc.). This whole area of study is very new and we have quite a bit to learn. There are scientists across the globe studying this area and learning a great deal.

Stanford study indicates that more than 99% of the microbes inside us are unknown to science

Of all the non-human DNA fragments the team gathered, 99 percent of them failed to match anything in existing genetic databases the researchers examined.

The “vast majority” of it belonged to a phylum called proteobacteria, which includes, among many other species, pathogens such as E. coli and Salmonella. Previously unidentified viruses in the torque teno family, generally not associated with disease but often found in immunocompromised patients, made up the largest group of viruses.

“We’ve doubled the number of known viruses in that family through this work,” Quake said. Perhaps more important, they’ve found an entirely new group of torque teno viruses. Among the known torque teno viruses, one group infects humans and another infects animals, but many of the ones the researchers found didn’t fit in either group. “We’ve now found a whole new class of human-infecting ones that are closer to the animal class than to the previously known human ones, so quite divergent on the evolutionary scale,” he said.

Related: We are Not Us Without The Microbes Within UsWebcasts on the Human MicrobiomePeople are Superorganisms With Microbiomes of Thousands of Species (2013)We Have Thousands of Viruses In Us All the Time (2015)Tracking the Ecosystem Within Us (2007)

We are Not Us Without The Microbes Within Us

I Contain Multitudes is a wonderful book by Ed Young on the microbes within us.

Time and again, bacteria and other microbes have allowed animals to transcend their basic animalness and wheedle their way into ecological nooks and crannies that would be otherwise inaccessible; to settle into lifestyles that would be otherwise intolerable; to eat what they could not otherwise stomach; to succeed against their fundamental nature. And the most extreme examples of this mutual assured success can be found in the deep oceans, where some microbes supplement their hosts to such a degree that the animals can eat the most impoverished diets of all – nothing.

This is another book exploring the wonders of biology and the complexity of the interaction between animals and microbes.

For hundreds of years, doctors have used dioxin to treat people whose hearts are failing. The drug – a modified version of a chemical from foxglove plants – makes the heart beat more strongly, slowly, and regularly. Or, at least, that’s what it usually does. In one patient out of every ten, digoxin doesnt’ work. Its downfall is a gut bacterium called Eggerthella lenta, which converts the drug to an inactive and medically useless form. Only some strains of E. lenta do this.

The complex interactions within us are constantly at work helping us and occasionally causing problems. This obviously creates enormous challenges in health care and research on human health. See related posts: Introduction to Fractional Factorial Designed Experiments, “Grapefruit Juice Bugs” – A New Term for a Surprisingly Common Type of Surprising Bugs and 200,000 People Die Every Year in Europe from Adverse Drug Effects – How Can We Improve?.

Every person aerosolized around 37 million bacteria per hour. This means that our microbiome isn’t confined to our bodies. It perpetually reaches out into our environment.

Avoiding bacteria is not feasible. Our bodies have evolved with this constant interaction with bacteria for millions of years. When we are healthy bacteria have footholds that make it difficult for other bacteria to gain a foothold (as does our immune system fighting off those bacteria it doesn’t recognize or that it recognized as something to fight).

A few pages later he discusses the problem of hospital rooms that were constantly cleaned to kill bacteria and largely sealed to reduce airflow. What happened is those bacteria the sick people had in them were the bacteria that were flourishing (the number of other bacteria to compete for space was small). Opening the windows to welcome the outside air resulted in better results.

Outdoors, the air was full of harmless microbes from plants and soils. Indoors, it contained a disproportionate number of potential pathogens, which are normally rare or absent in the outside world

Human health is a fascinating topic. It is true antibiotics have provided us great tools in the service of human health. But we have resorted to that “hammer” far too often. And the consequences of doing so is not understood. We need those scientists exploring the complex interactions we contain to continue their great work.

Related: People are Superorganisms With Microbiomes of Thousands of Species (2013)Bacteria are Always Living in Our Bodies (2014)Gut Bacteria Explored as Medical Treatment – even for Cancer

Engineering Mosquitos to Prevent the Transmission of Diseases

Mosquitos are responsible for huge amount of suffering and death. In 2015 200,000,000 people were infected with malaria and 500,000 died.

It is amazing what knowledge science has provided about the causes of human disease. It is great to have videos like this available that let us learn a bit about it from a short and understandable video.

Using our scientific knowledge to design and implement solutions offers great possibilities. But we also have to worry about the risks of such attempts. Making decisions about what risks to take requires well informed people that are able to understand the opportunities and risks and make intelligent decisions.

Related: Video showing malaria breaking into cellScientists Building a Safer Mosquito (2006)Engineering Mosquitoes to be Flying Vaccinators (2010)

Chimpanzees Solving Numerical Memory Test Better Than People

I can’t even see all the numbers before they disappear. But chimpanzees are shown seeing a flash of 9 numbers on a screen and then pointing to where they were on the screen in order from 1 to 9. Human test subjects can’t even do 5 numbers most of the time.

Related: Chimpanzees Use Spears to Hunt Bush BabiesOrangutan Attempts to Hunt Fish with SpearCrows can Perform as Well as 7 to 10-year-olds on cause-and-effect Water Displacement TasksTropical Lizards Can Solve Novel Problems and Remember the Solutions

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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.

Using Rats to Sniff Out TB

Apopo’s African giant pouched rats are being used to sniff out mines and TB

In the face of what the World Health Organisation is calling a global TB epidemic, an innovative tech startup named Apopo is attempting to reverse the harrowing statistics, using rodents to sniff out TB in cough and spit samples.

No ordinary lab rats, Apopo’s African giant pouched rats – affectionately named HeroRats – are extremely sensitive to smell, with more genetic material allocated to olfaction than any other mammal species. They are also highly social animals, and can be trained to communicate with humans.

I have written about these wonderful rats previously, Appropriate Technology: Rats Helping Humans by Sniffing Out Land Mines. As I have stated many time I especially enjoy engineering solutions that use affordable and effective methods to help everyone.

Photo of Hero-rat detecting TB in Mozambique with Apopo staff person

Hero-rat detecting TB in Mozambique

A DNA-screening device that takes up to two hours to analyse each individual sample with 95pc accuracy costs $17,000 and thousands more in upkeep. By contrast, a HeroRat costs $6,500 to train, can probe through hundreds of samples every hour [70-85% accuracy rate], and requires only food, water and cages for shelter.

Keep these innovations coming. The USA needs them also given the massively costly healthcare system in the USA.

The TB sniffing rat program was developed through Apopo in Tanzania.

Related: Rats Show Empathy-driven BehaviorBeehive Fence Protects Farms from ElephantsTuberculosis Risk (2007)Dangerous Drug-Resistant Strains of TB are a Growing Threat (2012)

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

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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Using Diatom Algae to Deliver Chemotherapy Drugs Directly to Cancer Cells

I am thankful for scientists doing the time consuming and important research to find new ways to fight disease. Here is an interesting webcast discussing how chemotherapy is used to fight cancer and how scientists are looking to algae to deliver the chemotherapy drugs to better target cancer cells (while not savaging our health cells).

I am also thankful to the funding sources that pay for this research (and for cool explanations of science, like SciShow).

Read more about the genetically engineered algae kills 90% of cancer cells without harming healthy ones. The algae are a diatom and many diatoms look very cool.

Sadly the actual research paper (by government funded university professors) is published by a closed science publisher (when are we finally going to stop this practice that was outdated over a decade ago?). Thankfully those responsible for SciShow are much more interested in promoting science than maintaining outdated business models (in direct contrast to so many science journal publishers).

Related post on cool delivery methods for life saving drugs: Using Bacteria to Carry Nanoparticles Into CellsSelf-Assembling Cubes Could Deliver Medicine (2006)Nanoparticles With Scorpion Venom Slow Cancer SpreadNASA Biocapsules Deliver Medical Interventions Based Upon What They Detect in the Body

Parasite Evolved from Cnidarians (Jellyfish etc.)

This is another instance of science research providing us interesting details about the very odd ways life has evolved on earth.

Genome sequencing confirms that myxozoans, a diverse group of microscopic parasites that infect invertebrate and vertebrate hosts, are actually highly reduced cnidarians — the phylum that includes jellyfish, corals and sea anemones.

“This is a remarkable case of extreme degeneration of an animal body plan,” said Paulyn Cartwright, associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Kansas (KU) and principal investigator on the research project. “First, we confirmed they’re cnidarians. Now we need to investigate how they got to be that way.”

images of myxozoans parasite spores and a jellyfish

Not only has the parasitic micro jellyfish evolved a stripped-down body plan of just a few cells, but via data generated at the KU Medical Center’s Genome Sequencing Facility researchers also found the myxozoan genome was drastically simplified.

“These were 20 to 40 times smaller than average jellyfish genomes,” Cartwright said. “It’s one of the smallest animal genomes ever reported. It only has about 20 million base pairs, whereas the average Cnidarian has over 300 million. These are tiny little genomes by comparison.”

Despite its radical phasedown of the modern jellyfish’s body structure and genome over millions of years, Myxozoa has retained the essential characteristic of the jellyfish — its stinger, or “nematocyst” — along with the genes needed to make it.

“Because they’re so weird, it’s difficult to imagine they were jellyfish,” she said. “They don’t have a mouth or a gut. They have just a few cells. But then they have this complex structure that looks just like stinging cell of cnidarian. Jellyfish tentacles are loaded with them — little firing weapons.”

The findings are the stuff of scientific fascination but also could have a commercial effect. Myxozoa commonly plague commercial fish stock such as trout and salmon.

“They’re a very diverse group of parasites, and some have been well-studied because they infect fish and can wreak havoc in aquaculture of economic importance,” Cartwright said.

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