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Why Are Primates Big-Brained? Researchers’ Answer Is Food for Thought

Brain size in primates is predicted by diet, an analysis by a team of New York University anthropologists indicates. These results call into question “the social brain hypothesis,” which has posited that humans and other primates are big-brained due to factors pertaining to sociality. The findings, which appear in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution, reinforce the notion that both human and non-human primate brain evolution may be driven by differences in feeding rather than in socialization. “Are humans and other primates big-brained because of social pressures and the need to think about and track our social relationships, as some have argued?” asks James Higham, an assistant professor in NYU’s Department of Anthropology and a co-author of the new analysis. “This has come to be the prevailing view, but our findings do not support it—in fact, our research points to other factors, namely diet.”

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Scientists Assemble Zika Virus Mosquito Genome From Scratch

A team spanning Baylor College of Medicine, Rice University, Texas Children’s Hospital and the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard has developed a new way to sequence genomes, which can assemble the genome of an organism, entirely from scratch, dramatically cheaper and faster. While there is much excitement about the so-called “$1000 genome” in medicine, when a doctor orders the DNA sequence of a patient, the test merely compares fragments of DNA from the patient to a reference genome. The task of generating a reference genome from scratch is an entirely different matter; for instance, the original human genome project took 10 years and cost $4 billion. The ability to quickly and easily generate a reference genome from scratch would open the door to creating reference genomes for everything from patients to tumors to all species on earth. Today in Science, the multi-institutional team reports a method – called 3D genome assembly – that can create a human reference genome, entirely from scratch, for less than $10,000.

To illustrate the power of 3D genome assembly, the researchers have assembled the 1.2 billion letter genome of the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which carries the Zika virus, producing the first end-to-end assembly of each of its three chromosomes. The new genome will enable scientists to better combat the Zika outbreak by identifying vulnerabilities in the mosquito that the virus uses to spread.

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The Genes and Neural Circuits Behind Autism’s Impaired Sociability

Researchers at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC) have gained new insight into the genetic and neuronal circuit mechanisms that may contribute to impaired sociability in some forms of Autism Spectrum Disorder. Led by Matthew P. Anderson, MD, PhD, Director of Neuropathology at BIDMC, the scientists determined how a gene linked to one common form of autism works in a specific population of brain cells to impair sociability. The research, published today in the journal Nature, reveals the neurobiological control of sociability and could represent important first steps toward interventions for patients with autism. “In this study, we wanted to determine where in the brain this social behavior deficit arises and where and how increases of the UBE3A gene repress it,” said Anderson, who is also an Associate Professor in the Program in Neuroscience at Harvard Medical School and Director of Autism BrainNET Boston Node. “We had tools in hand that we built ourselves. We not only introduced the gene into specific brain regions of the mouse, but we could also direct it to specific cell types to test which ones played a role in regulating sociability.”

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Overuse of Antibiotics Brings Risks for Bees — and for Us

Researchers from The University of Texas at Austin have found that honeybees treated with a common antibiotic were half as likely to survive the week after treatment compared with a group of untreated bees, a finding that may have health implications for bees and people alike. The scientists found the antibiotics cleared out beneficial gut bacteria in the bees, making way for a harmful pathogen, which also occurs in humans, to get a foothold. The research is the latest discovery to indicate overuse of antibiotics can sometimes make living things, including people, sicker. The UT Austin team, led by professor Nancy Moran and postdoctoral researcher Kasie Raymann, found that after treatment with the common antibiotic tetracycline, the bees had dramatically fewer naturally occurring gut microbes — meaning healthy bacteria that can help to block pathogens, break down toxins, promote absorption of nutrients from food and more. They also found elevated levels of Serratia, a pathogenic bacterium that afflicts humans and other animals, in the bees treated with antibiotics, suggesting that the increased mortality might have been a result of losing the gut microbes that provide a natural defense against the dangerous bacteria. “Our study suggests that perturbing the gut microbiome of honeybees is a factor, perhaps one of many, that could make them more susceptible to declining and to the colony collapsing,” Moran said. “Antibiotics may have been an underappreciated factor in colony collapse.” The results are reported today in the online journal PLOS Biology.

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Biochemists Develop New Way To Control Cell Biology With Light

Researchers at the University of Alberta have developed a new method of controlling biology at the cellular level using light. The tool—called a photocleavable protein—breaks into two pieces when exposed to light, allowing scientists to study and manipulate activity inside cells in new and different ways. “By shining light into the cell, we can cause the photocleavable protein to break, removing the inhibitor and uncaging the protein within the cell,” said lead author Robert Campbell, professor in the Department of Chemistry. Once the protein is uncaged, it can start to perform its normal function inside the cell. The tool is relatively easy to use and widely applicable for other research that involves controlling processes inside a cell.

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UCLA Study Aims To Improve Interaction Between LA Residents, Wildlife

UCLA researchers are studying how wildlife mammals live in urban Los Angeles to improve the relationship between animals and humans. With a prize of $225,000 from UCLA’s Sustainable LA Grand Challenge, the researchers will survey residents and study mammals such as squirrels, raccoons and possums in a three-part study starting next quarter. The three parts, which involve studying pathogens animals carry, learning how humans interact with mammals and documenting biodiversity in Los Angeles, will help researchers learn about how humans and animals influence each other. “Compared to mammals in natural environments, little is known about the abundance, diversity and population dynamics of wildlife mammals in LA urban areas,” said Jessica Lynch Alfaro, project leader and faculty member in the Institute for Society and Genetics.

The project will compare how animals live in the wild and how they live in urban environments by studying mammals’ DNA and recording their numbers, said Alfaro, who is also an anthropology professor. This will allow researchers to determine which aspects of urban construction threaten animals’ survival.

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Scientists Discover 83 Genetic Mutations That Help Determine Your Height

DNAEver wonder how much of your height you inherited from your parents? A large-scale genetic study published recently in the journal Nature is helping shed some light on the factors that determine whether a person grows to be 6-feet-1 or 5-feet-2. While scientists already had a good idea of the most common genetic factors that contribute to height, the new findings uncover a number of rare genetic alterations that can play a surprisingly major role in human growth. Using data from the Genetic Investigation of Anthropometric Traits consortium (a group also known as GIANT), scientists from the Broad Institute at MIT and Harvard analyzed genetic information from more than 700,000 people, discovering 83 DNA changes that play a part in determining a person’s height.

“Overall, common variants still contribute more to height than rare variants,” Dr. Joel Hirschhorn, the study’s lead author and a professor of pediatrics and genetics at Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, told The Huffington Post. “But, for the person who happens to carry one of the rare variants, the impact can be much greater than for common variants. For the variants we looked at, this was up to almost an inch… as opposed to a millimeter or less for the common variants.”

According to the study’s authors, this method of testing rare genetic variants could be used to investigate uncommon DNA changes involved in other aspects of human health.

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Important Information About the Federal and California Earned Income Tax Credit

In accordance with the Earned Income Tax Credit Information Act, the university includes a notice with all Form W-2 statements notifying employees that they may be eligible for the federal Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). Please note below an important amendment to this required notice, notifying employees that they may also be eligible for the California EITC:

Based on your annual earnings, you may be eligible to receive the Earned Income Tax Credit from the federal government (federal EITC). The federal EITC is a refundable federal income tax credit for low-income working individuals and families. The federal EITC has no effect on certain welfare benefits. In most cases, federal EITC payments will not be used to determine eligibility for Medicaid, Supplemental Security Income, food stamps, low-income housing, or most Temporary Assistance for Needy Families payments. Even if you do not owe federal taxes, you must file a federal tax return to receive the federal EITC. Be sure to fill out the federal EITC form in the federal income tax return booklet. For information regarding your eligibility to receive the federal EITC, including information on how to obtain the IRS Notice 797 or any other necessary forms and instructions, contact the Internal Revenue Service by calling 1-800-829-3676 or through its website at www.irs.gov.

You also may be eligible to receive the California Earned Income Tax Credit (California EITC) starting with the calendar year 2015 tax year. The California EITC is a refundable state income tax credit for low-income working individuals and families. The California EITC is treated in the same manner as the federal EITC and generally will not be used to determine eligibility for welfare benefits under California law. To claim the California EITC, even if you do not owe California taxes, you must file a California income tax return and complete and attach the California EITC form (FTB 3514). For information on the availability of the credit, eligibility requirements, and how to obtain the necessary California forms and get help filing, contact the Franchise Tax Board at 1-800-852-5711 or through its web site at www.ftb.ca.gov.

Relevant links:
UCOP notice: http://link.ucop.edu/2017/01/23/important-information-about-the-earned-income-tax-credit-and-your-w-2/
AB1847:  http://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/billNavClient.xhtml?bill_id=201520160AB1847