Cloning Advance Using Stem Cells from Human Adult Reopens Ethical Questions

slide imageScientists have grown stem cells from adults using cloning techniques for the first time — bringing them closer to developing patient-specific lines of cells that can be used to treat a whole host of ailments, from heart disease to blindness.  The research, described in Thursday’s online edition of the journal Cell Stem Cell, is a controversial advance likely to reopen the debate over the ethics of human cloning.

The scientists’ technique was similar to the one used in the first clone of a mammal, Dolly the sheep, which was created in 1996.  They “reprogrammed” an egg cell by removing its DNA and replaced it with that of an adult donor. Scientists then zapped the cell with electricity, which made it divide and multiply. The resulting cells were identical in DNA to the donor.

While the research published Thursday involves cells that are technically an early stage embryo, the intention is not to try to grow them into a fully formed human. However the techniques in theory could be a first step toward creating a baby with the same genetic makeup as a donor.

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Do Monkeys Grieve for Fallen Mates?

Colobus guerezaThe two marmosets—small, New World monkeys—had been a closely bonded couple for more than 3 years. Then, one fateful day, the female had a terrible accident. She fell out of a tree and hit her head on a ceramic vase that happened to be underneath on the forest floor. Her partner left two of their infants alone in the tree and jumped down to apparently comfort her, until she died an agonizing death a couple of hours later.

Humans mourn their dead, of course, and some recent studies have strongly suggested that chimpanzees do as well. Scientists have recorded cases of adult chimps apparently caring for fellow animals before they die, and chimp mothers have been observed carrying around the bodies of infants for days after their death—although scientists have debated whether the latter behavior represents true grieving or if the mothers didn’t realize their infants were really dead.  But there has been little or no evidence that other primates engage in these kinds of behaviors. Indeed, a recent review of the evidence led by anthropologist Peter Fashing of California State University, Fullerton, concluded that there were no convincing observations of “compassionate caretaking” of dying individuals among other nonhuman primates, such as monkeys.

Fashing says that the new observations demonstrate that “like chimpanzees, common marmosets are capable of interacting with dying group mates. It is especially interesting because marmosets are cooperative breeders with unusually strong male-female bonds,” and “we would expect that these animals would be especially affected by the loss of their primary mating and social partner.” Nevertheless, Fashing cautions that because the report is based on just one observation, it is premature to draw conclusions about how widespread such behavior is in marmosets and other cooperatively breeding primates.

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Splice Variants Reveal Connections Among Autism Genes

A team of researchers from the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine and the Center for Cancer Systems Biology (CCSB) at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute has uncovered a new aspect of autism, revealing that proteins involved in autism interact with many more partners than previously known. These interactions had not been detected earlier because they involve alternatively spliced forms of autism genes found in the brain.

In their study, published in the April 11, 2014 online issue of Nature Communications, the scientists isolated hundreds of new variants of autism genes from the human brain, and then screened their protein products against thousands of other proteins to identify interacting partners. Proteins produced by alternatively-spliced autism genes and their many partners formed a biological network that produced an unprecedented view of how autism genes are connected.

“With this assembled autism network, we can begin to investigate how newly discovered mutations from patients may disrupt this network,” said Iakoucheva. “This is an important task because the mechanism by which mutant proteins contribute to autism in 99.9 percent of cases remains unknown.”

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World Ranking Tracks Birds’ Evolutionary Distinctness

A team of international scientists, including a trio from Simon Fraser University, has published the world’s first ranking of evolutionary distinct birds under threat of extinction. These include a cave-dwelling bird that is so oily it can be used as a lamp and a bird that has claws on its wings and a stomach like a cow.

The research, published today in Current Biology, shows that Indonesia, Australia and New Zealand all score high on responsibility for preserving irreplaceable species. The researchers examined nearly 10,000 bird species and identified more than 100 areas where additional protection efforts would help safeguard avian biodiversity.

“We used genetic data to identify the bird species that have the fewest relatives on the ‘Tree of Life’, that is, which species score highest on the ‘evolutionary distinctness’ index,” explains SFU biologist Arne Mooers, one of the six authors of a study that was seven years in the making.  The index was created by former SFU PhD student Dave Redding, another of the trio, and was applied to an updated version of the first global tree of birds, published in 2012 by the group in Nature.

The researchers, led by Mooers and Walter Jetz at Yale University, combined the index with data on extinction risk and maps of where every bird in the world lives. The result is a snapshot of how the entire Tree of Life of birds is distributed on the planet, and where on earth the tree is most at risk of being lost.

The new rankings will be used in a major conservation initiative called the Edge of Existence program at the London Zoo. The zoo has already identified several species like the huge monkey-eating Philippine eagle that are at once distinct, endangered, and suffer from lack of attention.

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Male Eurasian Jays Surprise Ornithologists

The ability to disengage from our own desire to cater to someone else’s wishes is thought to be a unique feature of human cognition.  In a study published in the journal, Biology Letters, Prof Clayton and her colleagues challenge this assumption.

Despite wanting something different to eat, male Eurasian jays can disengage from their own current desire in order to feed the female what she wants even when her desires are different to his.

Study first author Dr Ljerka Ostojić from the University of Cambridge explained: “we found that males could respond to the female’s desire even when their own desire was conflicting. That said, the males were also partially biased by what they wanted – a bias similar to one commonly found in human children and adults.”

This ability to ascribe to another individual an internal life like one’s own and at the same time understand that the other’s internal, psychological states might differ from one’s own is called state-attribution.  “As humans, we ‘put ourselves into someone else’s shoes’ in order to respond to what the other person wants. Although we are biased by our own current desires, we can inhibit these to put the wants and desires of another before our own. The current findings show that the jays can also do this. So what this research suggests is that a common mechanism might underlie ‘desire-state attribution’ in humans and jays,” Prof Clayton said.

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2014 | Jessica Lynch Alfaro, – Capuchin Monkey Research Priorities and Urgent Issues

ISG Associate Director, Jessica Lynch-Alfaro, recently published “Capuchin Monkey Research Priorities and Urgent Issues” in the American Journal of Primatology.


The “Capuchin research community roundtable: working together towards a comparative biology of Cebus and Sapajus” was held at the International Primatological Society Congress in Cancún, Mexico, August 2012. Goals of the roundtable were to strengthen interactions among the capuchin research community, and to prioritize and coordinate research and training in a more systematic and interactive way in light of increasing conservation urgency. New phylogenetic and biogeographic evidence highlights the distinct evolutionary histories of the two radiations of capuchin monkeys, Cebus (untufted or gracile capuchins) and Sapajus (tufted or robust capuchins), that were formerly lumped under Cebus, and points to a higher number of species, or Evolutionarily Significant Units, in each compared to past capuchin taxonomies. Many of the lesser-known species face increasing fragmentation and destruction of habitat, and most populations of still non-threatened species face encroachment from human settlements. Here, we present capuchin research priorities and urgent issues based on the discussion by capuchin researchers in the roundtable. These include a call for the immediate end to the use of the name Cebus apella and the employment of the term Sapajus spp. instead for captive robust capuchins of unknown origin; for the implementation of rapid assessments for previously unstudied capuchin species or populations in biomes of interest; for the development of standardized methods to allow for comparative analyses across capuchin field sites; and for the creation and maintenance of an open-access website for capuchin monkey data. Finally, we planned the creation of an international Capuchin Action Network, to help disseminate research information; to work as a research community in a more efficient, collaborative manner; to help prioritize research and conservation goals as a community of experts; and to strengthen our political voice. Am. J. Primatol. © 2014 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.

2014 | Jessica Lynch Alfaro, – Activity Budget, Diet, and Habitat Use in the Critically Endangered Ka’apor Capuchin Monkey (Cebus Kaapori) in Pará State, Brazil: A Preliminary Comparison to Other Capuchin Monkeys

ISG Associate Director, Jessica Lynch-Alfaro, recently published “Activity Budget, Diet, and Habitat Use in the Critically Endangered Ka’apor Capuchin Monkey (Cebus Kaapori) in Pará State, Brazil: A Preliminary Comparison to Other Capuchin Monkeys” in the American Journal of Primatology.

The Ka’apor capuchin, Cebus kaapori, is perhaps the most endangered primate of the Brazilian Amazon. Endemic to a region with extreme intensification of habitat-degrading activities, it survives in remnant populations in a completely fragmented landscape. Before now, the only data available were isolated observations of feeding, locality records, and information on population densities and group size obtained during census. Here we present the first data on the activity budget, diet, and daily path length of the species, and compare our preliminary results with those for other capuchin monkeys. A group of nine Ka’apor capuchins was monitored over a period of four months during the dry season in the Goianésia do Pará municipality, Pará, Brazil. We used instantaneous scan sampling (n = 4,647 scans) to construct an activity budget for the monkeys, and we identified the plants in their diet to species level (n = 41 plant taxa), allowing us to compare dietary overlap with other gracile capuchin species, as well as with the robust capuchin (Sapajus spp.), a potential competitor present throughout the range of the Ka’apor capuchin. Like other species of gracile capuchins, C. kaapori was highly frugivorous, with the vast majority of the feeding records of arils and fruit pulp (74%), supplemented by arthropods (13%) and seeds (10%), although diet composition was highly variable across months. The group used a total area of 62.4 ha during the study period, and average daily path length was 2,173 m (±400 m), with the entire home range utilized in every month of the study. We found significant overlap in the diet of the Ka’apor capuchin and Sapajus, highlighting the urgency to increase knowledge of the ecological needs of C. kaapori and understand synergistic effects of sympatry with competitive species, increasing forest fragmentation, and widespread human impact on C. kaapori sustainability. Am. J. Primatol. © 2014 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.

DNA Modifications Measured in Blood Signal Related Changes in the Brain

20110529174721-lab-mouse-2.jpgJohns Hopkins researchers say they have confirmed suspicions that DNA modifications found in the blood of mice exposed to high levels of stress hormone — and showing signs of anxiety — are directly related to changes found in their brain tissues.

The proof-of-concept study, reported online ahead of print in the June issue of Psychoneuroendocrinology, offers what the research team calls the first evidence that epigenetic changes that alter the way genes function without changing their underlying DNA sequence — and are detectable in blood — mirror alterations in brain tissue linked to underlying psychiatric diseases.

The new study reports only on so-called epigenetic changes to a single stress response gene called FKBP5, which has been implicated in depression, bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder. But the researchers say they have discovered the same blood and brain matches in dozens more genes, which regulate many important processes in the brain. “Many human studies rely on the assumption that disease-relevant epigenetic changes that occur in the brain — which is largely inaccessible and difficult to test — also occur in the blood, which is easily accessible,” says study leader Richard S. Lee, Ph.D., an instructor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “This research on mice suggests that the blood can legitimately tell us what is going on in the brain, which is something we were just assuming before, and could lead us to better detection and treatment of mental disorders and for a more empirical way to test whether medications are working.”

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