Monday, October 17, 2016

A Baby that has Three Parents?

Normally a baby that is born contains genetics from both the father and the mother.  To think that a baby could have three parents is a bit odd to think about let alone become a reality.  If it were to happen, could that mean one of the parents had cheated on the other and somehow carried multiple eggs or sperm when creating a baby in some way?

No, don't worry.  Nobody cheated on anybody.  In fact, you can thank science for this profound discovery.

What actually occurs is a still controversial process in which genetic material from three different people are combined to create a child.  By doing so, this eliminates the possibility of a child to be born with a fatal genetic disease.  This process was supposedly carried out successfully in Mexico, for the greenlight for this procedure in the United States has yet to receive the go ahead.

Originally published in New Scientist, Dr. John Zhang (pictured above) of New Hope Fertility Center in New York City holds the child and told the story.  He worked with two parents who had already lost two children to a mitochondrial disease, a rare class of conditions caused by defects in the DNA of mitochondria, the organelles that provide energy to cells.  This disease in inherited maternally, so if the mother carries this mutation in her DNA the baby is born with the disease.  Therefore, in order to correct this, Zhang used an approach called spindle nuclear transfer to create five human embryos.  The article on Science described this process very well:

The method involves removing the nucleus—the bulk of a cell’s DNA—from one of the mother’s egg cells, and inserting that nucleus into a donor egg cell stripped of its own nucleus. The result is an egg with mitochondrial DNA from a healthy donor and nuclear DNA from the mother. Five donors eggs prepared this way were then fertilized with the husband’s sperm—but only one of the resulting embryos had a normal number of chromosomes. That embryo was transferred into the mother-to-be.

However, this process has drawn some criticism.  For starters, it is not a published paper or researched topic.  “Right now it’s just, ‘We have done it.’ It’s a claim,” says Dieter Egli, a stem cell biologist at Columbia University.  In addition, “This and other important questions remain unanswered because this work has not been published and the rest of the scientific community has been unable to examine it in detail,” wrote Dusko Ilic, a reader in stem cell science at King’s College London, in a public comment for journalists. “It’s vital that that happens soon.”  Still, some praise Zhang's work.  Clinical embryologist Jacques Cohen of Reprogenetics in Livingston, New Jersey, who has advised Zhang’s team about regulatory issues, states that “just because this was done in Mexico doesn’t mean it was not done ethically,” says Cohen, who himself led controversial fertility experiments in the 1990s involving the transfer of cytoplasm, in which the resulting babies also had three genetic parents.

For now, the question as to whether this procedure is ethically sound is still up in the air.  Regardless, the outcome is incredible, and could shape the future of stem cell research and giving parents the ability to have children if they couldn't before.

For more information, check out the article on Science here:

In addition, check out the article posted on New Scientist here:|NSNS|2016-Echobox&utm_campaign=Echobox&utm_medium=Social&utm_source=Twitter#link_time=1474985189

Monday, August 29, 2016

Learning How to Walk Again Thanks to Virtual Reality

Awhile ago, if you had asked any doctor or physician if there was hope for paraplegics in terms of recovery, they would have responded with little to no hope.  All that could be done for them was to comfort them and provide them with another means of transportation.  Fast forward to today, there may be a new hope.  A new way in which paraplegics may be able to walk again.  And it comes in the form of virtual reality.

Yeah, the same thing people use to play video games.

In essence, paraplegics have little to no brain function when it comes to motor skills forMiguel Nicolelis, the lead researcher from Duke University in North Carolina.  “It’s almost like the brain had erased the concept of moving by walking.”  So when patients were asked to imagine walking, the brain showed no sign of activity for that area.  By becoming paraplegic, patients' brains would literally "forget" how to walk because they could no longer control it.
walking, running, or basic movement of the lower limbs.  “When we look at the brains of these patients when they got to us, we couldn’t detect any signal when we asked them to imagine walking again. There was no modulation of brain activity,” Dr.

With virtual reality, everything may change.  Eight patients with chronic spinal cord injuries (SCIs) were used in a study in order to test brain-machine interfaces (BMIs) in terms of developing better therapies for paraplegics.  In this virtual reality, each patient was asked to navigate a virtual reality game using an Oculus Rift.  The game consisted of an avatar creation and a soccer field, in which the patients were asked to take their avatar and walk around on the soccer field.  In addition, a specially designed shirt was used in correlation with this study that monitored the patient and provided feedback onto the patients forearms that simulated walking on the ground.  This was used for a period of time, allowing the patients to get reacquainted with walking in a different form that their brain could understand.  After completing the first part, each patient was moved to an exoskeleton with a cap that could detect brain activity.  Simply put, the patient would have to think about walking and the cap would detect it.

Now the results were not immediate.  Each patient had a different recovery time in the 12 months of testing.  However, after an hour of using the exoskeleton every day, each patient regained some motor skills with walking.  More incredibly, each patient was able to recreate voluntary movement and sensation in their legs, as well as control bowel movements for the first time in years.

Granted, there are other methods for helping paraplegics now, including stem cell therapies and surgeries.  But this is the least intrusive method of recovery to date with incredible results.  "Overall, the results obtained in our study suggest that BMI applications should be upgraded from merely a new type of assistive technology to help patients regain mobility, through the use of brain-controlled prosthetic devices, to a potentially new neurorehabilitation therapy, capable of inducing partial recovery of key neurological functions," said Dr. Miguel Nicolelis.  "Such a clinical potential was not anticipated by original BMI studies. Therefore, the present findings raise the relevance of BMI-based paradigms, regarding their impact on SCI patient rehabilitation. In this context, it would be very interesting to repeat the present study using a population of patients who suffered a SCI just a few months prior to the initiation of BMI training. We intend to pursue this line of inquiry next. Based on our findings, we anticipate that this population may exhibit even better levels of partial neurological recovery through the employment of our BMI protocol."  This breakthrough could provide paraplegics with a greater hope for recovery and a cheaper alternative to other methods of recovery.  Who knew that by playing a VR game/simulation could lead to paraplegics recovering from their injuries?

For more information, here is the story that was written on the research paper:

In addition, here is the scientific paper that was published in the Nature magazine:

Sunday, July 31, 2016

OSIRIS-REx: How to Study a Killer Asteroid

To know your enemy, you must study and understand your enemy.  Same applies for killer asteroids right?

Nasa is planning on studying a monster asteroid that has been slowly getting closer and closer to Earth ever since it was discovered in 1999.  The asteroid, named "Bennu" crosses Earth's orbit every 6 years.  Granted, it's not like the asteroid is passing by Earth so closely that you can see it as it streaks through the sky.  In 2135, the asteroid will fly between the Earth and the Moon however, so the slight potential this asteroid has in hitting Earth increases every time it passes by.  And with passing between the Earth and the Moon, the asteroid could possibly be altered by Earth's gravity and strike the Earth in that century.

“Bennu falls on the boundary, in terms of size, for an object capable of causing a global catastrophe,” Professor Mark Bailey of Northern Ireland’s Armagh Observatory said.  Bennu is about 487 metres in diameter and travels around the sun at an average of 101,000 km per hour.  That size and that speed could result in an impact that is almost 200 times more powerful than the atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima.

NASA plans to use the Osiris-Rex probe to fly to Bennu in September and study the asteroid.  In order to do so, Osiris-Rex will spend a year orbiting the sun to build up its speed before it slingshots back around Earth, using the planet’s gravity to align its orbit with the asteroid’s.  Once the probe reaches the asteroid, it will study the surface and the composition of the asteroid.  In addition, the probe will hover over the surface of the asteroid, obtain samples, and then fly back to Earth.  “Bennu is a carbonaceous asteroid, an ancient relic from the early solar system that is filled with organic molecules,” said Lauretta. “Asteroids like Bennu may have seeded the early Earth with this material, contributing to the primordial soup from which life emerged.”  So for scientists, this is a big discovery in identifying what the asteroid is made of.

Although the asteroid is a long ways away from striking the Earth, the data obtained from this solar expedition will provide the future with great information.  If the asteroid does indeed one day make its way into a possible contact with Earth, we will at least know what its made of, the exact size, and how fast its going.  This could prevent a catastrophic collision and save mankind in the future.

For more information on this story, check out this link:

In addition, more info on the story can be found here:

Check out OSIRIS-REx on twitter to see photos and information on the probe and its journey:

Friday, June 10, 2016

Invasion of the Origami Gut Robots

Released from Massachusetts Institute of Technology

The prospect of small robots being used within the human body to fight infections or other problems within seemed like a far fetched idea.  However, the research group of Daniela Rus, Andrew and Erna Viterbi Professor in MIT's Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science presented their paper at the International Conference on Robotics and Automation on their discovery.  What they had developed were tiny origami robots that would enter the esophagus and the stomach, would fold and move around in the stomach to help with stomach wounds or foreign materials.

"It's really exciting to see our small origami robots doing something with potential important applications to health care," says Rus. "For applications inside the body, we need a small, controllable, untethered robot system. It's really difficult to control and place a robot inside the body if the robot is attached to a tether."  The robot uses a stick-slip method which uses its appendages to stick to a surface through friction when it moves, but slips free again when its body flexes to alter its weight distribution.  Also, since there is quite a bit of liquid within the stomach, the tiny robot can also use water to propel itself forward.  

In addition, the small robot is constructed out of bio-compatible material, so you aren't having a metal robot enter your system.  The material Biolefin was selected after the group tested numerous materials.  This material consists of a shrinking layer within a biodegradable shrink wrap that is partially comprised of dried pig intestine (used in sausage casings).  They then tested their design by using a pig's stomach filled with water and lemon juice to simulate an actual environment within a stomach.  The robot proved to be an excellent tool in removing a watch battery from said stomach.

“This concept is both highly creative and highly practical, and it addresses a clinical need in an elegant way,” says Bradley Nelson, a professor of robotics at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich. “It is one of the most convincing applications of origami robots that I have seen.”

For more information on this topic, check out the video released by MIT news:

In addition, check out the story here:

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Nevada Amphibole Asbestos: My Research

So this article is a little bit different.  This isn't a news story or a published article as of now.  It's still in development and the research is still ongoing.  Mainly, this research has to deal with natural asbestos that was found in Libby, Montana and Nevada.  The cool thing about this research is that it's all brand new information regarding autoimmune diseases and asbestos.

The super cool thing is that it is a project that I am working on.

Yep, you read that right.  I am actually participating in a big research project studying asbestos.  More specifically, I am looking at asbestos from Libby, Montana and Nevada and observing the correlations between autoimmune diseases and asbestos.  Like I said before, this research is still ongoing.  But I would love to share what information I have on the topic so far.

To begin with, this is the abstract that we submitted to the Montana State University Undergraduate Research Celebration during the month of April:

"Asbestos is a known carcinogen and also induces fibrosis of the lung. In addition, amphibole asbestos in particular has been shown to induce autoimmune responses. Despite these different outcomes, early stages are characterized by an immune/inflammatory reaction in the lungs, which can be used as a measure of the immunotoxicity of the fibers. Libby Amphibole (LA) asbestos was a contaminant of vermiculite mined near Libby MT for decades, leading to asbestos diseases not only to workers at the mine, but in the entire community. Recently, amphibole asbestos fibers similar in composition to LA were discovered just east of Boulder City, NV. It is very important to determine the relative toxicity of these fibers to establish the risk of disturbing this material. Our objective was to determine whether the Nevada Amphibole (NA) has similar biological effects as LA in a culture of mixed splenocytes. Fibers were collected and characterized by geologists at UNLV. Mixed splenocytes were challenged in vitro with five treatment groups: No Treatment, or 2 doses of each amphibole, 35 µg/cm 2 or 70 µg/cm 2 . Culture media was collected after 24 hr of treatment, and tested for Tumor Necrosis Factor alpha (TNFα) using a sandwich ELISA, as an early indicator of inflammation. The results showed that there is a statistical difference when comparing the asbestos treatments and no treatment, as well as differences between LA and NA. The results of the experiment showed that both amphiboles elicited a high amount of TNFα within the samples tested. This indicates that NA can cause as much risk as LA and that NA should raise as much concern if not more concern than the Libby Amphibole. Further studies in our laboratory will measure other cytokines in this comparison

To begin with, we looked at TNFα.  Essentially, this is a cytokine (chemical) produced by our cells when our body is trying to fight an autoimmune infection or cancer.  In my area, we focused on the splenocytes from mice spleen models while another group focused on macrophages in the lungs.  Now to explain the premise of this research.

So naturally occurring asbestos has recently been observed in Nevada, specifically around Boulder City and Las Vegas.  Through previous studies (the Libby Montana study) asbestos has been determined to cause some serious problems regarding mesothelioma and autoimmune diseases.  Our objective was to determine if the Nevada samples elicited the same reaction within mice models.  As the abstract says above, the same reactions in the splenocytes (and the macrophages) occurred in the mice models.  In addition, even higher levels of TNFα were produced in these samples than the Libby samples.  Granted, this is perliminary research, but the results suggest a serious problem.

Asbestos can take many years to manifest into a disease.  If people were exposed to this in Nevada, there could be a huge clean up problem.  How many people are exposed to this on a regular basis?  Thousands?  Millions?  With the amount of tourists that travel through this area, the problem could be catastrophic.  Therefore, it is crucial to fully determine what this naturally occurring asbestos sample can do to us.

As stated before, the research for this is ongoing!  I am working on this project for the next couple of months, maybe even the next year.  It is exciting to see where this research is heading!  Thanks for reading! 

If you have any questions on this topic, feel free to send me an email at:

Here is the funding that we receive for this project:

Emerging Exposures to Natural Occurring Asbestos in Western States: Fiber Specific Pulmonary and Autoimmune Health Effects in a Mouse ModelPIs: Deborah E. Keil and Jean C. Pfau. MAES, College of Agriculture, Montana State University.
Here are some research papers that could shed some light on this topic:

Monday, April 18, 2016

DNA That Could Make Us Superheroes

So who wants to be a superhero?

Turns out, there is a specific DNA series that can protect us from debilitating diseases.  In a recent study, approximately 600,000 genomes were sampled.  Within these samples, about 13 adults were found to harbor mutations for severe diseases.  However, these adults were not sick at all and showed no traits of the disease they were supposed to have.  This diseases include: cystic fibrosis, Smith-Lemli-Opitz syndrome, familial dysautonomia, epidermolysis bullosa simplex, Pfeiffer syndrome, autoimmune polyendocrinopathy syndrome, acampomelic campomelic dysplasia and atelosteogenesis.

So how in the world are these adults protected from these diseases?

Mutations in the individual genomes from the study are likely the answer.  Although mutations can cause diseases, they have also led to some incredible results.  So in essence, the next step would be to identify the specific gene mutations within these genomes in order to determine how exactly these people are protected from serious diseases they should have.  Easy enough, right?

Except that everyone in this study signed a consent form, so that no names would be used.  Therefore, the scientists can't go out and find the 13 "superheroes" from this study.

As a result, the research group states in their paper, "In prospective searches for resilient individuals, more appropriate consenting will be needed to link participants to their medical records and to allow for appropriate recontacting that enables follow-up characterizations, validation of their resilient condition and decoding to uncover the causes of the resilience".  Unfortunately, this raises some ethical questions.  Normally, names and identities are kept in secrecy to prevent any data on these individuals getting out and causing harm in anyway to said person.  With this study, these parameters would be slightly changed.  "[the study] exemplifies the often unforeseen benefits that can be achieved from responsible sharing of anonymized genetic and clinical data," said Dr Matthew Hurles, from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute.  "This poses research and ethical questions. Personally, if I were that individual, I'd happily share my genome if it could help someone else who had been dealt a less favorable genetic hand."

So the prospect of being a superhero could be a possibility after all.  Unfortunately, it wouldn't come with the abilities of flying, heat vision, super strength, or wearing a cape.  But, a superhero who is protected from numerous DNA-linked diseases and could help numbers of people get cured from said diseases sounds pretty great to me.

You can read the article that summarizes the paper here:

You can read the published research paper here:

Monday, March 28, 2016

Bacteria that Grows Better in Space than on Earth

Space is devoid of air and nutrients.  It's a vacuum that allows no life to exist outside of a sealed environment.  However, one of the many ongoing research projects in space is seeing how things fair in space that normally do well on earth.  For example, the human body, materials, and even small microorganisms are studied in space to determine the effect of space on each item.  And interestingly enough, bacteria don't really have a problem growing in a controlled environment in space.

"A lot of people as us 'why' we sent microbes into space," said Dr. David Coil, who is a lead author on this study and a microbiologist at UC Davis.  "Understanding how microbes behave in microgravity is critically important for planning long-term manned spacecraft but also has the possibility of providing new insights into how these microbes behave in human constructed environments on Earth."

After completing this experiment, however, one species of bacteria tested grew even better in space than on Earth.

Bacillus safensis, the bacteria that grew better in space, is found quite commonly here on earth.  In fact, its name is derived from its discovery on the outside of spacecraft in Florida and California.  Now this bacteria wasn't discovered when the spacecraft returned from space, it was discovered after assembly here on earth.  Its an aerobic Gram (+) bacteria (this means that the bacteria contains a thicker layer of peptidoglycan) who doesn't have any abnormal traits that differentiate it from any other bacteria on earth in terms of generic characteristics.

This bacteria, along with 47 other samples of microorganisms that were swabbed from multiple public locations as part of a nationwide citizen science project called Project MERCCURI, were sent up into space to be studied.  Most of not all of the organisms that were identified were determined to be normally found on the International Space Station (ISS).  However, it is completely unknown as to why Bacillus safensis grew 60% even better in space.

Granted, this discovery doesn't pave the way to cure cancer or anything of the sort.  However, the aspect that some bacteria can grow more efficiently in microgravity is a fantastic discovery.  From this, there is a possibility that we could isolate genes or specific features from this bacteria and use genetic engineering to grow other microorganisms or even food in microgravity.  Astronauts being able to grow vegetables and other foods within their ships as they travel through space could be a possibility if specific genes are isolated from within the genome of Bacillus safensis is a very cool thought.  Again, this is all speculation, but in the future of space travel and exploration, this could be a big discovery.

PHOTO CREDIT: Alex Alexiev, UC Davis (CC BY 4.0)

To read more about this experiment, check out the PeerJ article here:

In addition, another news story about this discovery can be read here:

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Eliminating Autoimmune Diseases

Autoimmune diseases affect numerous people throughout the world.  Rheumatoid arthritis, asthma, multiple sclerosis; they are all diseases we have heard of before.  The prospect of a treatment being possible is a tough obstacle to climb, for autoimmune diseases are incredibly hard to treat.  How soon could we expect some sort of drug that would help us combat such diseases?

Well, the wait may only be a little bit longer.

Scientists from Russia, Germany and Great Britain have recently created a prototype of a new antibody-based drug for autoimmune diseases.  This new drug, being called MYSTI (Myeloid-Specific TNF Inhibitor), focuses on the Tumer Necrosis Factors (TNF) produced by macrophages in the body.  This protein belongs to the family of cytokines, which help control inflammation, counterbalance tumor formation, and regulate the immune system against a plethora of diseases.  However, there are two sides to this small protein.  The "good" TNFs help the body by performing the actions listed above.  The "bad" TNFs are ones that do not function correctly and can promote serious diseases in the body.

In order to create a drug that would focus on the bad TNFs without harming the good TNFs, the scientists focused on bispecific antibodies.  EurekAlert gives a specific but brief description of bispecific antibodies:

Each B-lymphocyte produces against a particular antigen only one antibody type consisting of two pairs of heavy and light chains. Though scientists learned long time ago to produce artificial, 'chimeric' antibodies that are able to stick to two proteins simultaneously with various Fab-fragments. Such antibodies are called bispecific. One of its advantages - a possibility to connect different cells using such an antibody - this was already used to produce effective cure for several kinds of tumors. In antibody bioengineering field, a particular type of antibodies from camel, lama or shark, which contain only heavy chains, can be used. 

By utilizing these bispecific antibodies, the team of researchers successfully created a sample of bispecific antibodies that selectively inhibit the bad TNFs without altering the function of the good TNFs.  "This work lasted nearly ten years. The article describes only the tip of the iceberg," said Sergei Nedospasov, who was the main author of this study.  In addition, this research proves through scientific means that it is entirely possible to focus on a specific cytokine and produce it through a particular type of cell lineage.

Granted, this does not mean that the cure for cancer and all autoimmune diseases is at hand.  However, this is an incredible step into learning more about these diseases and finding a successful treatment that will help millions of people around the world.

More information on this topic can be found here:

The scientific paper that was published on this topic can be found here:

Monday, February 29, 2016

Reviving an Extinct Zebra Subspecies

Just outside of Cape Town in South Africa, there is a valley that roams with zebras.  More specifically, these zebras are known as Quaggas, which are a subspecies of the plains zebra.  The main difference between the Quaggas and the zebras we all know well reside in the markings on the body.  The Quaggas have no markings near the back of their bodies and have darker brown coloration.

The second difference between the two subspecies is that the Quaggas died out in 1883 after being hunted to extinction in the 19th century.  So how did the Quaggas end up just outside of Cape Town?

A DNA project for the Quaggas was founded by the late Reinhold Rau, a German-born South African natural historian, who had DNA samples from a quagga skin at the South African Museum analysed.  The DNA was found to be very similar to the zebras we see today, so zebras with weak or nonexistent streaks near the rear were selected for this project.  These zebras, although still field zebras, contained fragments or small traits of Quagga DNA within their own DNA, thus the weak/nonexistent strips on their hinds.  To exhibit more and more of the Quagga genes, selected zebras were bred together to try and produce the coloring found on the Quagga species.  After 5 generations of selective breeding, the project is satisfied that it has recreated the Quagga.  "To all intents and purposes they are the Quagga back again.  The project has been a complete success," says Eric Harley, a retired professor of chemical pathology at the University of Cape Town.  "We don't do genetic engineering, we aren't cloning, we aren't doing any particularly clever sort of embryo transfers - it is a very simple project of selective breeding."

However, the project has faced numerous criticism from many scientists who argue that selective breeding is mainly used for profits.  In addition, they state that the process is unjustifiable and should not have occurred.  "I think there is controversy with all programs like this.  There is no way that all scientists are going to agree that this is the right way to go," said Harley.  "We are a bunch of enthusiastic people trying to do something to replace something that we messed up many years ago."  Even facing some strong criticism, this project has seemingly brought the Rau-Quagga (named after the project to create distinction from its forebears) out of extinction and back into the wild.  Unlike other hybrid animals that have received treatment, the newly bred Rau-Quagga can reproduce among themselves, ensuring that with the right care and protection, this species can survive and thrive.

For more information on this topic, check out these links:
"I think there is controversy with all programmes like this. There is no way that all scientists are going to agree that this is the right way to go," he said.
"We are a bunch of enthusiastic people trying to do something to replace something that we messed up many years ago."

Read more at:
"I think there is controversy with all programmes like this. There is no way that all scientists are going to agree that this is the right way to go," he said.
"We are a bunch of enthusiastic people trying to do something to replace something that we messed up many years ago."

Read more at:

"We don't do genetic engineering, we aren't cloning, we aren't doing any particularly clever sort of embryo transfers—it is a very simple project of ," he said.

Read more at:
"We don't do genetic engineering, we aren't cloning, we aren't doing any particularly clever sort of embryo transfers—it is a very simple project of ," he said.

Read more at:
"To all intents and purposes they are the quagga back again. The project has been a complete success."

Read more at:
"To all intents and purposes they are the quagga back again. The project has been a complete success."

Read more at:
by the late Reinhold Rau, a German-born South African natural historian, who had DNA samples from a quagga skin at the South African Museum analysed

Read more at:
by the late Reinhold Rau, a German-born South African natural historian, who had DNA samples from a quagga skin at the South African Museum analysed

Read more at:
by the late Reinhold Rau, a German-born South African natural historian, who had DNA samples from a quagga skin at the South African Museum analysed

Read more at:
by the late Reinhold Rau, a German-born South African natural historian, who had DNA samples from a quagga skin at the South African Museum analysed

Read more at:

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

The Microbial Way of Reducing CO2 Emissions in the Air

As of now, CO2 emissions have been a continuous and growing threat to our environment.  The rises in
greenhouse gasses and carbon dioxide have slowly pushed our global climate towards a catastrophic environment, one which will completely manifest in the future if we don't act soon.  Scientists, researchers, and engineers alike have been searching for a new and improved way to eliminate the rise of carbon dioxide within our air.  Now, we may actually have a plausible way to reduce emissions that is efficient, beneficial to the environment, and cost effective.

All it takes is a little help from the microbial world.

The nonphotosynthetic bacterium, Moorella thermoacetica, actually does not use photosynthesis to create energy.  In fact, it utilizes the acetyl-CoA pathway to cycle carbon in the environment.  Normally, the amount of carbon this bacterium cycles is small, leading to a small amount of acetic acid that is produced.  However, researchers Kelsey K. Sakimoto, Andrew Barnabas Wong, and Peidong Yang conducted a recent study to determine if the efficiency and amount of carbon that is cycled by M. thermoacetica could be improved.

The research team used a hybrid approach and combined Moorella thermoacetica and cadmium sulfide nanoparticles to enable an increase in photosynthesis of acetic acid from carbon dioxide.  This reaction is a two step synthesis.  To begin with, "the precipitation of CdS (cadmium sulfide nanoparticles) by Moorella thermoacetica is triggered by the addition of Cd2+ and cysteine as the sulfure source.  Moorella thermoacetica uses photogenerated electrons from illuminated CdS to carry out photosynthesis.  The absorption of a photon by CdS produces an electron and hole pair, e- and h+.  The electron generates a reducing equivalent that is passed on [...] to synthesize acetic acid from Co2."  Essentially, the addition of CdS to Moorella thermoacetica allows the bacterium a greater capacity for the photosynthesis of acetic acid from CO2.  From this, the team concluded that the amount of acetic acid that was synthesized was greater than the amount produced solely by the bacterium.

In order to determine that this process was successful, the team conducted another experiment where different components of the reaction were removed.  For example, the team removed the light source in one round and the CdS in another round.  As a result, the amount of acetic acid that was created in the absence of light slowly declined to 25% of the regular amount after 4 days, while the amount that was created with just Moorella thermoacetica dropped to almost 0% after only one day.  This confirms that Moorella thermoacetica and CdS hybrids exposed to light produce acetic acid from CO2.

Overall, this new discovery could pave the way for reduced carbon emissions in our air.  In addition, this hybrid organism could provide the ability to study biological systems and carbon cycling that may take place.  Granted, this would not be an overnight process, and a large amount of the bacterium would be required.  But it is an excellent first step into a budget friendly and efficient way to reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

For more information on Moorella thermoacetica, click these links (note the last one is an entire paper on the genome and properties of this bacterium):

For more information on this study, the link to the research paper is provided here:

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

The New Ninth Planet

Could you imagine a planet that could actually be classified as the new ninth planet in our solar system beyond Pluto?  One that completes a revolution around the Sun every 20,000 or so years?  How about a planet that could possibly be 5,000 times the size of Pluto?

Or how about 10 times the size of Earth?

Researchers at Caltech have finally found substantial evidence that a planet exists within a unique orbit in the outer solar system.  Granted, this planet has not been observed directly yet (the picture above is an artist's rendering, R. Hurt at Caltech).  However, researchers Konstantin Batygin and Mike Brown used mathematical modeling and complex computer models and simulations to determine the identity of the ninth planet.  "Although we were initially quite skeptical that this planet could exist, as we continued to investigate its orbit and what it would mean for the outer solar system, we became increasingly convinced that it is out there," says Batygin. "For the first time in over 150 years, there is solid evidence that the solar system's planetary census is incomplete."

Since the beginning of the debate on whether extreme Kuiper Belt objects existed, the idea of a planet far out in the Kuiper Belt was tossed around.  However, the idea never really took root, for the observation of such a planet was never seen, and data was inconclusive.  Beginning in 2014, the idea based on a paper published by Chad Trujillo and Scott Sheppard arose from the observation on distant objects in the Kuiper Belt and their obscure orbital feature.  Brown brought is thoughts to Batygin, and the two worked for a year and a half on this problem. 

Their efforts on observing the Kuiper belt and the many objects within slowly brought forth fruit.  They initially saw that 6 objects had elliptical orbits that fell within the same direction in physical space, indicating that something was affecting the orbits.  Secondly, they disproved that the simple amount of objects would affect the orbits of the 6 objects, calculating that the Kuiper Belt would require over 100 times the amount of mass it has today.  Finally, after numerous computer simulations, they discovered that a massive planet in an anti-aligned orbit (180 degrees from all other objects and known planets in the solar system) matched the data that they had received.

"Your natural response is 'This orbital geometry can't be right.  This can't be stable over the long term because, after all, this would cause the planet and these objects to meet and eventually collide,'" said Batygin.  However, due ti a mechanism known as mean-motion resonance, the massive planet actually propels the objects away from it as the objects in the Kuiper pass by it due to its unique orbit.

So essentially, the evidence for a ninth planet in deep space in our solar system is overwhelming.  But it has not been observed just yet.  "I would love to find it," says Brown. "But I'd also be perfectly happy if someone else found it.  That is why we're publishing this paper.  We hope that other people are going to get inspired and start searching [...] All those people who are mad that Pluto is no longer a planet can be thrilled to know that there is a real planet out there still to be found.  Now we can go and find this planet and make the solar system have nine planets again."

More on this story can be read here:
"Your natural response is 'This orbital geometry can't be right. This can't be stable over the long term because, after all, this would cause the planet and these objects to meet and eventually collide,'" says Batygin. - See more at:
"Although we were initially quite skeptical that this planet could exist, as we continued to investigate its orbit and what it would mean for the outer solar system, we become increasingly convinced that it is out there," says Batygin, an assistant professor of planetary science. "For the first time in over 150 years, there is solid evidence that the solar system's planetary census is incomplete." - See more at:
mathematical modeling and computer simulations
, Konstantin Batygin and Mike Brown
, Konstantin Batygin and Mike Brown
, Konstantin Batygin and Mike Brown
/R. Hurt (IPAC)
/R. Hurt (IPAC)
/R. Hurt (IPAC)
/R. Hurt (IPAC)

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Re-engineering Ants By Altering Genes in the Brain

Much like humans, ants respond to certain behavioral changes or environmental aspects that they encounter.  When an ant is hungry, it acts accordingly.  When an ant is threatened, again it acts accordingly.  Even within the ant hill, the ant's behavior may be subject to change depending on situations it encounters.  Now these changes in behavior are a result of genes located in the brain, and were observed within carpenter ants that were observed in a study co-authored by NYU Langone researchers and publishers.  With this discovery, focusing on specific genes to target certain behaviors in humans may be possible in the near future.

To further dive into the specifics, the researchers focused on a compound known to block the action of a group of enzymes, histone deacetylases (HDACs), which would activate genes that would cause the carpenter ant worker to behave like another ant without altering the coding for the gene itself.  Therefore, more work is being done to discover what else can be altered without changing or rewriting the genes themselves in ants or even humans.

Furthermore, the researchers conducted a series of tests on a female carpenter ant to regulate whether she became a guard ant (major in size) or a scout ant (minor in size).  To further elaborate on what the study focused on, an excerpt from the news article on EurekaAlert! was taken that describes the components within the ant that the scientists studied:

Specifically, the study found that foraging behavior as a caste-specific trait in the ant C. floridanus is controlled by the interplay between well-known families of enzymes: histone acetyltransferases (HATs), and histone deacetylases (HDACs). As their names suggest, HAT enzymes attach acetyl groups to histones, protein spools that DNA is wrapped around, to turn on genes. HDACs remove the groups from histones to turn off gene expression.

By focusing on the HDACs, the team was able to use HDAC inhibitors to alter the behavior in the guard ants and cause them to scout for food.  Essentially, the major ants were reprogrammed to function like the minor ants.  In addition, it wasn't just one gene that was activated within the major ants.  The experiment found that hundreds of genes in the central ant brain linked to hormone signaling, the sending of signals along nerve pathways, and the building of connections between nerve cells were all altered or activated in a different way than a normal major ant without HDAC inhibitors.  

With this discovery, and the results surrounding the use of HDAC inhibitors in ants, it seems entirely possible to alter behaviors and even which genes are activated in a multitude of organisms, including humans.  Granted, humans and ants do not share the exact same genetic blueprint, but the idea and the science behind it gives us a unique opportunity to possibly alter mental diseases in the brain, behavioral issues, and other problems within humans.  As stated by Danny Reinberg, PhD, the Terry and Mel Karmazin Professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Pharmacology at NYU Langone, and a corresponding study author, "While no one is saying that ant behavior extends to humans, we believe, nonetheless, that this work promises to help guide the future use of HDAC inhibitors, which are already being studied as potential treatments for schizophrenia, depression, and neurodegenerative diseases."

More information on this topic can be found here: