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Biologists induce flatworms to grow heads and brains of other species

151124113017_1_540x360Biologists at Tufts University have succeeded in inducing one species of flatworm to grow heads and brains characteristic of another species of flatworm without altering genomic sequence. The work reveals physiological circuits as a new kind of epigenetics – information existing outside of genomic sequence – that determines large-scale anatomy.

The finding that head shape is not hard-wired by the genome but can be overridden by manipulating electrical synapses in the body suggests that differences in species could be determined in part by the activity of bioelectrical networks. The discovery could help improve understanding of birth defects and regeneration by revealing a new pathway for controlling complex pattern formation. It has long been known that neural networks exploit bioelectric synapses to store and re-write information in the brain.

The findings are detailed in the cover story of the November 2015 edition of the International Journal of Molecular Sciences, appearing online Nov. 24.

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Why are some wild animals more tolerant to human interaction than others?

photo+by+Daniel+T.+Blumstein,+2015_14232f72-9ecb-44d9-bcff-c914b85344c8-prvWhen most wild animals first encounter humans, they respond as they would to any predator — by running, swimming or flying away. Over time, some species become more tolerant of humans’ presence, but the extent to which they do is largely driven by the type of environment in which the animals live and by the animal’s body size, according to a comprehensive new analysis. Researchers led by Daniel Blumstein, a professor and chair of ecology and evolutionary biology in the UCLA College, analyzed 75 studies conducted over the past half-century of 212 animal species — mostly birds, but also mammals and lizards. The scientists estimated species’ tolerance to human disturbance by comparing how far away from humans an animal would have to be before it fled — a statistic called “flight initiation distance.”

The new analysis showed that larger animals are more likely to be disturbed in more remote areas by people, but if the human–animal interactions are mostly benign, and if the animals can tolerate people, larger species eventually learn that people are not very threatening. “This new finding flips previous recommendations about large-bodied species being more vulnerable to the presence of humans, and shows that large-bodied species are more tolerant,” said Blumstein, the study’s senior author and a member of the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability. “It is likely costly for animals to respond fearfully to people that are not harming them. The key question to ask now is which species can tolerate humans enough so as to habituate to them.”

Read the full article here.

Early probiotic use may decrease risk of islet autoimmunity in children at risk for type 1 diabetes

ProbioticDrops2_RSSProbiotic exposure during the first 27 days of an infant’s life may be associated with reduced risk of islet autoimmunity among children at increased genetic risk for type 1 diabetes, although further studies are needed before any recommendations for probiotics can be made, according to a University of South Florida-led study published online by JAMA Pediatrics.

Ulla Uusitalo, PhD, of the University of South Florida, and coauthors examined the association between supplemental probiotic use during the first year of life and islet autoimmunity. Islet autoimmunity occurs when antibodies attacks islet cells in the pancreas that produce insulin. The condition, which precedes the symptoms of type 1 diabetes, can be detected by measuring these islet autoantibodies in the blood.  “We have taken a baby step forward, and there is the possibility that in the future we may find preventive measures for Type 1 diabetes using probiotics, among children at high risk,” said Dr. Uusitalo, associate professor of pediatrics at the USF Health Morsani College of Medicine.

An association does not imply causality and further research needs to be done, the authors note.

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Baby girl is first in the world to be treated with ‘designer immune cells’

A baby girl with aggressive leukaemia has become the first in the world to be treated with designer immune cells that were genetically engineered to wipe out her cancer. The one-year-old, Layla Richards, was given months to live after conventional treatments failed to eradicate the disease, but she is now cancer free and doing well, a response one doctor described as “almost a miracle”.  “We have only used this treatment on one very strong little girl, and we have to be cautious about claiming this will be a suitable treatment option for all children,” said Waseem Qasim, professor of cell and gene therapy at University College London’s (UCL) Institute of Child Health, and a consultant immunologist at GOSH. “But this is a landmark in the use of new gene engineering technology and the effects for this child have been staggering,” he said.

The therapy could be suitable for five to 10 children with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia in Britain each year. But doctors are keen to modify the therapy to tackle other blood disorders and different types of cancer.

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Jessica Lynch Alfaro and Michael Alfaro Awarded a Grant Through São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP)

Congratulations to ISG Faculty, Jessica Lynch Alfaro and Michael Alfaro, who were awarded a grant through the São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP), “Phenotypic plasticity of robust Capuchin monkeys (genus Sapajus): research on the effects of distinct ontogenetic trajectories and context-dependent activation,” under PI Patricia Izar, Psychology Department, University of São Paulo, Brazil. This is an interdisciplinary grant that will study behavioral development in four wild populations of Capuchin monkeys in Brazil.  Dr. Lynch Alfaro will be heading up the sequencing of genomes of 10 Capuchin monkey species, and subsequently developing a SNP-chip for population-level genomic analyses of Capuchin monkeys using non-invasive sampling techniques.

New fossil could reshape our understanding of ape evolution

Doc1A fragmented skeleton dug out from a Spanish landfill may force scientists to redraw their theories on the ancestor of humans and all other apes. Pliobates cataloniae, described in the journal Science, reveals that the common ancestor of humans, gorillas and gibbons may have looked more gibbon-like than previously thought. Researchers believe that Old World monkeys and apes split off from each other around 25 million to 30 million years ago, and later the Old World apes split again into “lesser” apes (whose modern-day members include gibbons) and great apes (whose descendants today include gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos and humans).

“These lesser apes must have diverged quite early, like say between 15 and 20 million years ago, but the oldest possible fossil gibbon is only about 7 million years old — so we are missing most of the history,” Alba said. “We have a large gap in the record.” Unfortunately there are relatively few specimens that could be used to fill in the gaps and narrow down the possibilities, the scientists said.

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Predicting the Human Genome Using Evolution

DNATo gain a clearer picture of health and disease, scientists have now provided an independent reference for all human variation by looking through the evolutionary lens of our nearest relatives. Such a powerful approach has been developed by Temple University professor Sudhir Kumar and colleagues and was detailed in the advanced online publication of Molecular Biology and Evolution. “There are two ways to generate a map of the human genome variation: one is to get genomes of all the humans and build a compilation as the 1,000 Genomes Project and others have undertaken,” said Kumar, a Temple University professor and director of the Institute for Genomics and Evolutionary Medicine (iGEM). “The alternative, which is the basis of our approach, is to compile all genome data from other species and predict what the human sequence reference should be.”

By observing evolution’s “greatest hits” (and misses) and the history of the major themes and patterns of genome conservation (and divergence) across many species, Kumar’s approach predicts probable mutations that will be found among people and the fate of human variation.

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Why We Love Equality and Hate Those Who Cheat

654d8055-3dd7-4cf1-ae41-461cf663292e-967x1020A four-year-old girl sees three biscuits divided between a stuffed crocodile and a teddy bear. The crocodile gets two; the bear one. “Is that fair?” asks the experimenter. The girl solemnly judges that it is not. “How about now?” asks the experimenter, breaking the bear’s single biscuit in half. The girl cheers up: “Oh yes, now it’s fair. They both have two.” Strangely, children feel very strongly about fairness, even when they scarcely understand it. Adults care about fairness too – but how much? One way to find out is by using the ultimatum game, created by economist Werner Guth. Jack is given a pile of money and proposes how it should be divided with Jill. Jill can accept Jack’s “ultimatum”, otherwise the deal is off, and neither gets anything.

Both types of fairness matter. Fairness-as-equality comes to the fore when we think about divisions of chores, favouritism between children or postcode lotteries in healthcare. Fairness-as-no-cheating is centre stage when we are outraged by professional fouls, drugs in sport, falsifying wills, miscarriages of justice or fraudulent elections.  So perhaps the four-year-old’s intuitions about fairness is not the first stirrings of egalitarianism, but the beginnings of an understanding of negotiation. With a sense of fairness, people will have to make us decent offers (or we’ll reject their ultimatums) and stick by the (sensible) rules, or we’ll be on the warpath. So a sense of fairness is crucial to effective negotiation; and negotiation, over toys, treats, bedtimes, chores, money etc, is the fabric of life.

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