International Ob-Gyn Group Urges Greater Efforts to Prevent Toxic Chemical Exposure

Pesticide-sprayer_featureDramatic increases in exposure to toxic chemicals in the last four decades are threatening human reproduction and health, according to the International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics (FIGO), the first global reproductive health organization to take a stand on human exposure to toxic chemicals. The opinion was written by obstetrician-gynecologists and scientists from the major global, US, UK and Canadian reproductive health professional societies, the World Health Organization and the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF).

Chemical manufacturing is expected to grow fastest in developing countries in the next five years, according to FIGO. In the U.S. alone, more than 30,000 pounds of chemicals per person are manufactured or imported, and yet the vast majority of these chemicals have not been tested. Chemicals travel the globe via international trade agreements, such as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, which is being negotiated between the European Union and the United States. Environmental and health groups have criticized the proposed agreement for weakening controls and regulations designed to protect communities from toxic chemicals. “Exposure to chemicals in the air, food and water supplies disproportionately affect poor people,” said Linda Giudice, MD, PhD, MSc, a FIGO opinion co-author, past president of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM) and chair of the UCSF department of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences. “In developing countries, lower respiratory infections are more than twice as likely to be caused by chemical exposures than in developed countries.”

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A Chemistry Test for Public Safety

Dr. Patrick Allard, ISG Assistant Professor, is featured in a UCLA Newsroom piece titled “A chemistry test for public safety.

Patrick Allard

An estimated 80,000 chemical substances currently find their way into our environment through industrial and agricultural waste, as well as through food additives, pesticides, pharmaceuticals and personal care products. But even as companies continue to produce new chemical compounds at a rapid clip, toxicologists and state and federal regulators agree that conventional approaches to testing chemical safety have significant limitations.

“When we say chemicals in the environment are safe, that’s only within the context of what has been studied,” said Patrick Allard, assistant professor in the  Department of Environmental Health Sciences in the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health. “But what has been studied is only the tip of the iceberg — there is still a great deal of uncertainty.”

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UCLA Opens New Program to Solve Mystery Genetic Diseases

Dr. Eric Vilain, ISG Co-Director, and Dr. Christina Palmer, ISG Vice Chair of Academic Personnel, are featured in a UCLA Newsroom piece titled “UCLA opens new program to solve mystery genetic diseases.

A new UCLA program offers hope and potential answers for people who have undergone extensive medical testing that has failed to identify their illness.

“Undiagnosed diseases take a huge toll on patients, their families and the health care system,” said Dr. Katrina Dipple, who is a co-principal investigator of the program along with fellow UCLA geneticists Dr. Stanley Nelson, Dr. Christina Palmer and Dr. Eric Vilain. “The lack of a clear diagnosis can prevent patients from obtaining the correct care for their condition. Our goal is to quickly give patients a firm diagnosis and clarify the best way to treat them.”

People enrolled in the program will undergo an intensive weeklong assessment featuring a clinical evaluation, consultations with specialists and multiple medical tests, including DNA sequencing to uncover genetic mutations. The UCLA team will also evaluate the impact of genetic counseling and genomic test results on patients and families to develop best practices for conveying this information.

Research Shows Evolution in Real Time

David-Reznick-374x561In ongoing research to record the interaction of environment and evolution, a team led by University of California, Riverside biologist David Reznick has found new information illustrating the evolution of a population of guppies. Working in a river in Trinidad, the researchers, including Reznick’s former graduate student Swanne P. Gordon and two undergraduates working in his lab, determined which male guppies would contribute more offspring to the population as well as which would live longer and which would have a shorter lifespan. “We’re detailing how evolution happens,” Reznick, a distinguished professor of biology, said. “Usually people look at evolution as change over time but they don’t know the details of how it changes.”

The findings, which appeared online Aug. 19 in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, show how real time evolution can be resolved into differences among fathers in siring sons, which could be attributed to how successful the father is in finding mates or how long he lives. It also shows how evolution can link these differences to heritable individual attributes. “People think of evolution as historical. They don’t think of it as something that’s happening under our nose. It is a contemporary process. People are skeptical; they don’t believe in evolution because they can’t see it. Here, we see it. We can see if something makes you better able to make babies and live longer,” Reznick said.

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Homo Naledi, New Species in Human Lineage, Is Found in South African Cave

Acting on a tip from spelunkers two years ago, scientists in South Africa discovered what the cavers had only dimly glimpsed through a crack in a limestone wall deep in the Rising Star cave: lots and lots of old bones. The remains covered the earthen floor beyond the narrow opening. This was, the scientists concluded, a large, dark chamber for the dead of a previously unidentified species of the early human lineage — Homo naledi. The new hominin species was announced on Thursday by an international team of more than 60 scientists led by Lee R. Berger, an American paleoanthropologist who is a professor of human evolution studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. The species name, H. naledi, refers to the cave where the bones lay undisturbed for so long; “naledi” means “star” in the local Sesotho language.

“With almost every bone in the body represented multiple times, Homo naledi is already practically the best-known fossil member of our lineage,” Dr. Berger said. The finding, like so many others in science, was the result of pure luck followed by considerable effort.

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Searching Big Data Faster

150826132013_1_540x360For more than a decade, gene sequencers have been improving more rapidly than the computers required to make sense of their outputs. Searching for DNA sequences in existing genomic databases can already take hours, and the problem is likely to get worse. Recently, Bonnie Berger’s group at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) has been investigating techniques to make biological and chemical data easier to analyze by, in some sense, compressing it. In the latest issue of the journal Cell Systems, Berger and colleagues present a theoretical analysis that demonstrates why their previous compression schemes have been so successful. They identify properties of data sets that make them amenable to compression and present an algorithm for determining whether a given data set has those properties. They also show that several existing databases of chemical compounds and biological molecules do indeed exhibit them.

“This paper provides a framework for how we can apply compressive algorithms to large-scale biological data,” says Berger, a professor of applied mathematics at MIT. “We also have proofs for how much efficiency we can get.” The key to the researchers’ compression scheme is that evolution is stingy with good designs. There tends to be a lot of redundancy in the genomes of closely related — or even distantly related — organisms.

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Study Investigates Whether Blind People Characterize Others by Race

Most people who meet a new acquaintance, or merely pass someone on the street, need only a glance to categorize that person as a particular race. But, sociologist Asia Friedman wondered, what can we learn about that automatic visual processing from people who are unable to see? “The visual process of assigning race is instantaneous, and it’s an example of automatic thinking — it happens below the level of awareness,” Friedman said. “With blind people, the process is much slower as they piece together information about a person over time. Their thinking is deliberative rather than automatic, and even after they’ve categorized someone by race, they’re often not certain that they’re correct.”

Friedman’s study breaks new ground, with little previous research done on the subject. An earlier study found that blind people think of race in visual terms, even though they rely on senses other than sight. But Friedman’s subjects generally did not think of race visually. Additionally, unlike the earlier study, which included only people who were born blind, Friedman’s study considered individuals who were born without sight as well as people who became blind later in life. Friedman found some differences between those groups.

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Editing Humanity

Susanne.Posel-Headline.News.Official- genome is written in an alphabet of just four letters. Being able to read, study and compare DNA sequences for humans, and thousands of other species, has become routine. A new technology promises to make it possible to edit genetic information quickly and cheaply. This could correct terrible genetic defects that blight lives. It also heralds the distant prospect of parents building their children to order. The technology is known as CRISPR-Cas9, or just CRISPR. It involves a piece of RNA, a chemical messenger, designed to target a section of DNA; and an enzyme, called a nuclease, that can snip unwanted genes out and paste new ones in. Other ways of editing DNA exist, but CRISPR holds the promise of doing so with unprecedented simplicity, speed and precision.

It will be years, perhaps even decades, before CRISPR is being used to make designer babies. But the issues that raises are already the subject of fierce discussion. In April scientists in China revealed they had tried using CRISPR to edit the genomes of human embryos. Although these embryos could not develop to term, viable embryos could one day be engineered for therapeutic reasons or non-medical enhancement.

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