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‘Mean Girl’ Meerkats Can Make Twice As Much Testosterone As Males

meerkatsTestosterone. It’s often lauded as the hormone that makes males bigger, bolder, stronger. Now a pair of Duke University studies has identified one group of animals, the meerkats of the southern tip of Africa, in which females can produce even more testosterone than males. Female meerkats with naturally high levels of testosterone-related hormones are more likely to be leaders, but they also pay a price for being macho, the studies show. In meerkats, it’s the ladies who do most of the growling, biting and chasing. The top-ranking meerkat queens are the biggest bullies, shoving, charging and swiping food from the females beneath them.

The findings are consistent with an idea biologists first proposed in 1992, which posits that testosterone makes males showier and more aggressive, but also more prone to infection.

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Monkeys Can Make Stone Tools, but They Don’t Use Them

capuchen-toolsThe capuchin monkeys of Serra da Capivara National Park in Brazil are well known for using rocks. They use them as hammers to crack open nuts. They use them for digging. They even use them to show off to potential mates. Now scientists report that they also spend time banging stones together, for no clear reason, producing sharp-edged stone flakes that are just like some of the first tools of early humans. They don’t use these flakes, so they are clearly not trying to produce them. But the flakes do show that neither the human hand nor brain is necessary for making such artifacts.

Tomos Proffitt, a researcher at Oxford who has studied early human tools produced in Africa, and his colleagues in England and Brazil, reported the observations and an analysis of the rock flakes in the scientific journal, Nature.

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Scripps Florida Scientists Uncover New Facets of Zika-Related Birth Defects to Help Develop Treatment

zika1In a study that could one day help eliminate the tragic birth defects caused by Zika virus, scientists from the Florida campus of The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) have elucidated how the virus attacks the brains of newborns, information that could accelerate the development of treatments. The study, led by TSRI Associate Professors Hyeryun Choe and Damon Page, was published recently in the journal Nature Scientific Reports. In the new study, the scientists observed the virus’s effects in animal models at two different points—during early postnatal development, when the brain is growing rapidly, and at weaning, when the brain has largely reached adult size. The findings expand the current knowledge of cell types vulnerable to the effects of Zika infection to include not only neuron progenitor cells, but also post-mitotic neurons that have finished dividing but are still are undergoing rapid increases in cell size. These results are consistent with the theory that periods of rapid brain growth are especially susceptible to the damaging neurodevelopmental effects of Zika infection.

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Adapting to the Heat

frogIn classic experiments on frogs, scientists found that the amphibians’ urge to escape from dangerously hot water decreased significantly when the water temperature rose very gradually. In fact, sensitivity of many animals to temperature — including humans — is similarly affected by the rate of increase. Exactly why, however, has not been understood. “We know a lot about how animals sense large and sudden increases in temperature,” said Montell, the Patricia and Robert Duggan Professor of Neuroscience in UCSB’s Department of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology. “They respond to noxious heat by initiating an escape response. But how is it that animals are so much less sensitive to the same hot temperature when the change is really slow?” The answer to that question turned out to have two parts. First, Montell and his team identified the thermosensory neurons in the brain responsible for sensing the rate of temperature change, which helped to define the underlying molecular mechanism. Second, the researchers discovered that the fast response to rapidly increasing heat depended on a transient receptor potential (TRP) channel. The activation of the cellular temperature sensor, a protein called TRPA1, was not simply a function of the absolute temperature but rather depended on the rate of temperature change. If the temperature increase was rapid, TRPA1 turned on quickly and excited those thermosensory brain neurons. When the temperature increased slowly, TRPA1 was less active.

The scientists posit that the ability to sense the rate of temperature change is a critical survival mechanism that allows an animal to quickly respond to and escape from a noxious thermal landscape before it is too late.

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2016 | Christina Palmer, Janet Sinsheimer, et al – Bilingual approach to online cancer genetics education for Deaf American Sign Language users produces greater knowledge and confidence than English text only: A randomized study

ISG faculty, Christina PalmerJanet Sinsheimer, and previous ISG affiliate faculty member, Patrick Boudreault, have published a paper titled “Bilingual approach to online cancer genetics education for Deaf American Sign Language users produces greater knowledge and confidence than English text only: A randomized study,” with Disability and Health Journal, 2016.


Introduction: Deaf American Sign Language-users (ASL) have limited access to cancer genetics information they can readily understand, increasing risk for health disparities. We compared effectiveness of online cancer genetics information presented using a bilingual approach (ASL with English closed captioning) and a monolingual approach (English text).
Hypothesis: Bilingual modality would increase cancer genetics knowledge and confidence to create a family tree; education would interact with modality.
Methods: We used a parallel 2:1 randomized pre-post study design stratified on education. 150 Deaf ASL-users >18 years old with computer and internet access participated online; 100 (70 high, 30 low education) and 50 (35 high, 15 low education) were randomized to the bilingual and monolingual modalities. Modalities provide virtually identical content on creating a family tree, using the family tree to identify inherited cancer risk factors, understanding how cancer predisposition can be inherited, and the role of genetic counseling and testing for prevention or treatment. 25 true/false items assessed knowledge; a Likert scale item assessed confidence. Data were collected within 2 weeks before and after viewing the information.
Results: Significant interaction of language modality, education, and change in knowledge scores was observed ( p 5 .01). High education group increased knowledge regardless of modality (Bilingual: p ! .001; d 5 .56; Monolingual: p ! .001; d 5 1.08). Low education group increased knowledge with bilingual ( p ! .001; d 5 .85), but not monolingual ( p 5 .79; d 5 .08) modality. Bilingual modality yielded greater confidence creating a family tree ( p 5 .03).
Conclusions: Bilingual approach provides a better opportunity for lower educated Deaf ASL-users to access cancer genetics information than a monolingual approach.  2016 The Authors. Published by Elsevier Inc. This is an open access article under the CC BY-NCND license (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/).

DNA mapping tool helps scientists better understand how genes are regulated

DNAScientists have devised a powerful new tool for understanding how DNA controls gene activity in cells. The tool allows researchers to map at high resolution, across large swaths of a cell’s genome, which DNA nucleotides work to regulate gene activity. “This is the first method that enables us to simultaneously test thousands of human DNA regulatory regions for their ability to turn genes on and off, and to map in high resolution the elements that activate and repress genes within them,” said Jason Ernst, the study’s lead author and an assistant professor of biological chemistry at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.

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Altering the ‘Flavor’ of Humans Could Help Fight Malaria


A new study by Johns Hopkins researchers suggests that a specialized area of the mosquito brain mixes tastes with smells to create unique and preferred flavors. The findings advance the possibility, they say, of identifying a substance that makes “human flavor” repulsive to the malaria-bearing species of the mosquitoes, so instead of feasting on us, they keep the disease to themselves, potentially saving an estimated 450,000 lives a year worldwide. “This is the first time researchers managed to specifically target sensory neurons in mosquitoes. Previously, we had to use flies as a proxy for all insects, but now we can directly study the sense of smell in the insects that spread malaria,” says Olena Riabinina, Ph.D., the lead author of the study and a postdoctoral fellow now at the Imperial College London. “We were pleasantly surprised by how well our genetic technique worked and how easy it is now to see the smell-detecting neurons. The ease of identification will definitely simplify our task of studying these neurons in the future.”

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Decoding of Tarsier Genome Reveals Ties to Humans

tarsierSmall enough to fit into the palm of your hand, with enormous eyes and an appetite for meat, tarsiers are an anomaly of nature. They are also our distant cousins, according to scientists at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, who recently sequenced and analyzed the tarsier genome. The findings, published Oct. 6 in Nature Communications, place tarsiers on an important branch of the primate evolutionary tree – along the same branch that leads to monkeys, great apes and humans.

“We sequenced the tarsier not only to determine where they fit in primate evolution, but because their physiology, anatomy and feeding behavior are very unique,” said Wesley Warren, PhD, an associate professor of genetics and the study’s senior author.

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