How jet lag induces cancer

For years, the main cause of liver cancer was heavy drinking but that is no more the case. Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease is now the prime force behind most liver cancers. Obesity is widely been blamed for this but there is also evidence suggesting that disrupted circadian rhythms play a part too. How and why circadian disruption has this effect has been a mystery but now a new study is revealing details.

The researchers worked with mice and found that jet lag induced the livers of the animals to produce and store far more fat than they otherwise would. Worse, they noticed that jet lag drove the mice to produce compounds that both induced mutations and helped their liver cells to replicate rapidly. The combination of increased cellular replication with mutagens around proved utterly toxic and ultimately produced cancer cells. This is unpleasant stuff but the researchers point out that understanding the chemical pathways responsible for spawning liver cancer can give us the edge as we attempt to prevent this terrible disease. You can read more in The Economist article that I wrote on this here

Orca research explains menopause

Image courtesy of NOAA.

Image courtesy of NOAA.

Why menopause happens in some animals is a longstanding evolutionary mystery. Many biologists have argued that menopause forces grandmothers to support the offspring of their own children rather than continuing to have kids of their own but number-crunchers have dismissed this "grandmother hypothesis" on the grounds that the magnitude of the benefits granted by grandmotherly support are insufficient to account for the monumental genetic cost of giving up reproduction. In recent years an alternative theory has emerged suggesting that menopause reduces the cost of inter-generational reproductive conflict by preventing weakening older females from becoming pregnant and using up valuable resources that could go to their actively reproducing daughters. It is a nice idea but proving it has been difficult. Now a team is demonstrating that this theory is correct by cleverly making use of an animal that lives for decades after menopause sets in: the orca.

The researchers tapped into a long-term dataset on wild resident killer whales where females frequently live for 20 to 40 years after menopause begins. Using 43 years of orca data they were able to show that when mothers and daughters co-breed, mortality in calves from older generation females was 1.7 times that of calves from younger generation females. They point out that when the cost of this intergenerational effect is combined with the known benefits conveyed to grandchildren by grandmothers, the numbers to do work out and it becomes clear that menopause is a wise biological investment for a long lived species. You can read more in The Economist article that I wrote on this here.

Podcast: Robobee

Bees are in big trouble. Their populations are declining rapidly all over the world and if they vanish entirely agriculture is going to suffer. The reason is down to pollination. Many plants depend upon bees to carry pollen from one plant to another. This allows the plants to sexually reproduce and is essential to maintaining genetic diversity. If bees perish, plant sexual reproduction will grind to a halt. For this reason, ecologists are working very hard at keeping bees around but, just in case they fail, engineers have their backs with drones that can pollinate plants in the absence of insects. You can listen to the full story on The Economist's science podcast Babbage here.

Toxin tracking

Chemotherapy drugs are a lot like cats, release them into space and you never really know where they are going to go. Even when the same drug is used against the same sort of cancer in two different patients its behaviour can be very different. The worst part about this is that medics often can only work out where a drug has gone by monitoring patient health. It would be better to know immediately whether a drug is accumulating where medics want it to and now a team is revealing that they have found a way to do this.

The researchers behind the new work developed a tactic for attaching labels made of radionucleotides to specific cancer drugs that are carried inside tiny capsules called liposomes. They then used positron emission tomography scans to monitor the movement of the drugs in mice with different sorts of cancers. 

With mice suffering from breast and ovarian cancer, the team were encouraged to find that the drugs accumulated in tumours and bone tissue at levels well above those in normal tissues. However, in some female mice belonging to a specific genetic strain the drugs concentrated in their uteruses where no cancer cells were present. This is useful information and will become doubly so when this technique starts getting used in people. You can read more in The Economist article that I wrote on this here.

Detecting speech disorders with computers

Last year a team revealed that psychological depression and post traumatic stress disorder pepper adult speech with telltale signs that computers can potentially detect. Now a new study conducted by a different lab is revealing the development of a computer system that can detect childhood speech and language disorders whilst they are still easily treatable in their initial stages. 

Language disorders in kids often go undetected until the age of five or six when when significant learning damage has already been done. The researchers behind the new work are aiming to resolve this problem with their new computer system which analyses audio recordings of kids' voices as they retell a story presented to them in their own words. You can read more in The Economist article that I wrote on this here.

Feeding off fish pee

I was really here to feed on your urea. Image courtesy of University of Aberdeen.

I was really here to feed on your urea.

Image courtesy of University of Aberdeen.

Ammonia is toxic to aquatic animals and yet there is ample evidence that sharks and their kin are attracted to it. Many experts have argued that sharks use ammonia to track down their prey and, while that might be true, a new study is now revealing evidence that sharks are capable of converting the toxin into a valuable resource with their gills.

The new work began when a previous study noted that ammonia can be actively taken up by shark gills and transformed into urea. While interesting on its own, the finding led the biochemists behind the new research to question whether the sharks were getting something more out of this conversion. After working through the chemistry associated with the process, they speculated that sharks were obtaining a net nitrogen gain from the ammonia uptake. This was intriguing because nitrogen has to be obtained by sharks through meat. Moreover, it is required not only for them to grow but also for them to manage the salt in their blood. When the researchers monitored what sharks did with ammonia laced waters in the lab, they were stunned to discover that the predators use it to cover 31% of their daily nitrogen demands and can thus get by on considerably less meat. You can read more in The Economist article that I wrote on this here.

Sticking around

The best medicines in the world cannot do much if the patients who need them do not take them as prescribed. This problem is particularly serious in rural areas where attempts to eliminate malaria are at work. One key drug, ivermectin, is excellent at killing off mosquitoes that feed on the blood of people taking it and can effectively create a firewall against malaria if everyone in an area is on it. The trouble is that ivermectin has an 18 hour half life in the body and needs to be taken daily by everyone for it to be effective at controlling malaria's movements. A solution has been badly needed and now a team is revealing that they have found one.

The researchers behind the new work have developed an oral, ultra–long-acting capsule that dissolves in the stomach and deploys a star-shaped structure that slowly releases ivermectin while assuming a position in the digestive tract that prevents it from passing into the intestines while still allowing food to get by. In tests run on pigs, the team found that the specially designed structures were able to release mosquito killing doses of ivermectin for two weeks at a time. Moreover, they suspect that with further engineering they can extend their drug release period to be several months. Furthermore, they suggest that there is a real potential for other drugs to be housed in their devices that could help medicate patients suffering from diseases that impair their ability to take drugs in the first place (like diabetes and Alzheimer's). You can read more in The Economist article that I wrote on this here.

You can read more in The Economist article that I wrote on this here.

Carnivorous origins

Wicked! Image courtesy of Luis Lopez.


Image courtesy of Luis Lopez.

Palaeontologists have found a fossil that has all of the skeletal features which reveal it to be the great great grandparent of the sauropod dinosaurs like diplodocus, brachiosaurus and apatosaurus. The sauropods are well known for having been gentle giants. While they were absolutely enormous, their teeth make it clear that they never ate anything other than plants. We always figured that their ancestors were likely to have only eaten plants too and we were clearly wrong.

You do not have to be a palaeontologist to look at these teeth and know they were definitely not for chewing on leaves! It is a very cool finding that raises tonnes of questions like "what animals was this sauropod hunting" and "what forces drove its descendants to ultimately go vegetarian". You can read more in The Economist article that I wrote on this here.

Growing drugs to combat malaria

Sweet wormwood yields invaluable artemisinin, a compound that is highly effective against drug-resistant malaria. The trouble with artemisinin is that it is very expensive. A major part of the cost stems from the fact that wormwood is tricky to grow and artemisinin is challenging to extract from its tissues. Elimination of these challenges would make the antimalarial far more affordable and have the potential to save a lot of lives. Now researchers are reporting that they have found a way to do this by getting tobacco plants to produce artemisinin in copious amounts. 

The team behind the new work genetically engineered tobacco to produce artemisinin. This has been done before but the plants always yielded precious little of the compound and often did not grow very well. The team discovered a clever biochemical way around this. More importantly, they are reporting that the artemisinin produced by their engineered plants could be delivered orally to mice infected with malaria and that the drug proved very effective even when it was delivered while still encapsulated within the cells of the tobacco plant. 

You can read more in The Economist article that I wrote on this here.

Predatory pollination

Come closer dearie... Image courtesy of Stefan Doetterl.

Come closer dearie...

Image courtesy of Stefan Doetterl.

With its needle-like teeth and pitcher shape the South African parachute plant looks like it ought to be carnivorous. It very nearly is. Flies that enter fall into a pit of pollen and cannot get out until the pod they are in begins to wilt and the teeth holding them captive weaken. Yet many mysteries have remained. Flies are not known for their intelligence but it seems odd that they would be so willing to crawl into such a treacherous looking cavity.  Now a new study is revealing that the plant is releasing chemicals that dupe the insects into believing that their favourite prey are lying wounded within. 

You can read more in The Economist article that I wrote on this here.

Podcast: Not worth a second glance

The upper crust of society is commonly characterised as being aloof. Indeed, the trait has come to stand as an archetype for the social class. Yet it has been an open question as to whether this reputation is deserved and, if it is, why joining the higher echelons leads people to behave this way. Now a new experiment is revealing that members of the upper classes actually pay a lot less attention to the faces of other people as they walk down a street than members of the lower classes do. You can listen to the full story on The Economist's science podcast Babbage here.

Just add water

There is tremendous potential for living cells to be used for the biosynthesis of drugs, therapeutic proteins, and other valuable commodities. However, the need for specialised equipment and refrigeration for production and distribution has made it crazy difficult for these technologies to be used in the remote and low resource areas where they are often needed. To circumvent this challenge, a team has invented a portable device that uses pellets made from the freeze-dried bits of cells that manage DNA and arrange for protein manufacture which can be easily hydrated and put to use. 

The researchers have demonstrated the effectiveness of their new technique by using it to manufacture the proteins that are needed for the vaccine for diphtheria. This synthetic foundry that they've created has the potential to be harnessed for the production of other vaccines and, if it proves financially viable to mass produce, could save a lot of lives in the developing world.

You can read more in The Economist article that I wrote on this here.

Feed a fever?

For treatment of viral infections only. Image courtesy of Hoyabird8. 

For treatment of viral infections only.

Image courtesy of Hoyabird8. 

Whether the adage goes that it is best to feed a fever and starve a cold or the other way around depends upon which grandparent you ask. However, no matter how you square it,  the concept of meddling with diet during times of illness is old. More importantly, the body does this all on its own by making you lose your appetite during certain sorts of infections. However, nobody has really looked into the biochemistry of all this. Now a new study is revealing that glucose is key.

The researchers behind the work knew from past animal studies that fasting was helpful for surviving some but not all infections. They also knew that fasting was vital to surviving really terrible bacterial infections. This led them to wonder which aspect of fasting was helping to combat the bacteria.

To explore this, they infected mice with dangerous bacterial and viral infections and monitored how they responded to diets that were limited in various ways. Glucose restriction dramatically improved survival in the mice with bacterial infections but proved lethal in the mice with viral infections. The reason for this, they suspect, is because bacterial infections drive cells in the body to shift from relying heavily on glucose for energy to relying on other compounds and that when glucose is provided in large amounts it gives the cells fuel that they cannot possibly use which forces the body to expend precious resources processing the unused glucose.

You can read more in The Economist article that I wrote on this here.    

Navigating into darkness

Eye diseases like macular degeneration and diabetic retinopathy are among the leading causes of blindness worldwide. The good news is there are several drug therapies that can be used to treat these disorders and prevent a total loss of sight. The bad news is that these therapies require drugs to be delivered to the back of the eyeball with a syringe. Understandably, most people are like me and don't even like the pairing of the words "needle" and "eyeball" in the same sentence. As a result, many patients opt for far less effective treatments. Now a team has found a way to provide this valuable therapy to the back of the eye with topical drops.

Blindness from both macular degeneration and diabetic retinopathy are the result of blood vessels growing out of control behind the eye. The vessels are tamed with drugs that have to be brought to the tissues they are growing in. To avoid having to inject these drugs, researchers speculated that they might be able to make use of a drug-ferrying synthetic polymer with a peptide known as penetratin. They knew that the peptide had good permeability in the eye and speculated that pairing it with the polymer might allow drugs carried in this way to migrate to the rear of the eyeball. The team tested this out on rats and found that the complex rapidly migrated to the rear of their eyeballs in reasonable concentrations. Perhaps more importantly, they found that it stayed in the back of the eyeball for more than eight hours - long enough for the drugs to have their needed effect. This hideously complex research published in Applied Materials and Interfaces and, if you fancy trying to digest the original paper, you can do so here


Boring to stare at but so important. Image courtesy of the USGS.

Boring to stare at but so important.

Image courtesy of the USGS.

Palaeontology matters. I know, as a palaeontologist myself I am most certainly biased, but let's face it, if we want to understand the sorts of conditions that the planet can throw at us in the future it is important (vital even) to know what it threw at our ancestors. Some of this ancient information can be gleaned by analysing the bones of impressive fossils like those of the dinosaurs but, more often than not, palaeontologists gaze at tiny* shelled organisms called foraminifera that float about in the sea and make food for themselves from sunlight. For decades, analysis of foraminfera shells have told us a great deal about what the chemistry of the ocean was like when they were alive. Now a new study is revealing that we've been making a terrible terrible error.

When researchers try to work out how old a fossil foraminifera shell is, they use the carbon in it to determine age. Known as carbon dating, this analysis method is straightforward as long as the carbon in the shell of the foraminifera is the same carbon that was put their by its cells during life. Normally, when an animal dies, there is no way for new carbon to make its way into its body but the team behind the new work is showing that this is not entirely true. When foraminifera die, their shells fall to the bottom of the ocean and ultimately get squashed under layers and layers of sediment. It turns out that this squashing  process leads carbon from the surrounding environment to ooze into the foraminifera fossils and that this, in turn, badly throws off the techniques that we have been using to date them.

While you've probably never heard of formainifera before** this finding is a big deal and suggests that a huge chunk of our data on ancient climates is wrong. You can read more in The Economist article that I wrote on this here.  

*And frankly, rather boring. 

**Understandable of course given how unbelievably boring they are to stare at in lab

Macho hugs

If you were to ask me whether men or women are more likely to kiss and makeup after a fight, I'd confidently say that women are more inclined towards this than men and I would be wrong. A team of anthropologists who studied hugging, hand-shaking and other sorts of cuddly contact after fierce sports competitions found that men were much more likely to perform these acts and that they tended to engage in them for longer than women.  

The whole reason for this research was to determine how men living in tribal settings are able to work together following the sorts of violent tests of dominance that are common in these sorts of places. Unfortunately for us, the researchers were not able to get permission from their university to have spear duels on their campus to explore this question so they had to settle for studying athletes after playing tennis and ping pong instead. You can read more in The Economist article that I wrote on this here

Salted vault

Bounty stored within? Image courtesy of Rob Lavinsky

Bounty stored within?

Image courtesy of Rob Lavinsky

It is relatively easy for us to work out how much oxygen is found in the air available on the planet today but determining what the air was like millions of years ago is considerably more difficult. Researchers have traditionally looked at the surfaces of iron-bearing rocks and studied how much the iron has rusted. While this works, it is not ideal and the search has been on for a better method. Now a team is revealing that they have found one in the form of salt.

When ocean water evaporates, beautiful cubic salt crystals get left behind and drops of water are sometimes trapped inside them. The researchers behind the new work speculated that tiny traces of ancient air might get trapped with the water inside these crystals and that analysis of this air might allow them to identify how much oxygen, nitrogen and carbon dioxide was present in the atmosphere long ago. They tested this idea out in the lab with salt crystals that they collected from numerous sites all around the world and the results are simply sublime. You can read more in The Economist article that I wrote on this here.     

Portable vaccine factories

Getting vaccines to the developing world is tricky since many of them are temperature sensitive and require carefully controlled refrigeration throughout their long journey from the facilities where they are made to the impoverished regions where they are badly needed. Many have argued that it would be better to move vaccine production facilities closer to the places where the vaccines are heavily distributed but this is not as simple as it sounds. Genetically modified cells are often responsible for the creation of the proteins found in vaccines and there are a zillion rules and regulations controlling their use and transport. These laws are sensible since these critters could truly cause a lot of ecological damage if they were to escape into the wild but the red tape is so thick that it is nearly impossible to move these cells across international borders. Now a team is revealing that they've found a clever way around this problem by effectively breaking these genetically modified cells into their component parts for transport such that they wouldn't be able to do much of anything even if they did escape. You can read full coverage of this research in my article in The Economist here.  

Love and marriage

Is frequent sex a key ingredient required in maintaining marital bliss? Psychologists have debated this topic for decades and the data on the matter are about as divided as they come. Roughly half of the studies exploring the this query reveal evidence that sex makes married partners more satisfied with one another and roughly half show that sexual frequency has not effect whatsoever. Now a new study aimed at studying why the conflict itself exists is arguing that all of the controversy is arising form the fact that psychologists are asking the wrong questions.

The new work started off by doing what all other studies have done. It gathered up married couples, asked them how often they had sex and then gave them a whole bunch of surveys that well known to measure marital satisfaction. All of this provided precisely the same unclear picture that has been seen time and time again. However, where the new work differed was in the addition of an automatic partner attitude test.

This test measured instant feelings. It started by presenting participants with a series of words and asking them to rate on a seven point scale how positive or negative each word was as quickly as they possibly could. Periodically, an image would flash up on the screen before more words were shown. Sometimes this picture was of the participant's spouse, sometimes it was of a hot member of the opposite sex, sometimes it was of a neutral image like a tree. 

What the researchers found was that participants ranked words more positively after they saw an image of their spouse if they had frequent sex with them but did not do so if they have infrequent sex. You can read more in The Economist article that I wrote on this subject here

Beer biology

If only we had some Japanese sake yeast.

If only we had some Japanese sake yeast.

Researchers who just finished studying the genetics of 167 yeasts commonly used in brewing have started using their findings to create new beer flavours. Their latest experiment involved taking some genes from a yeast that is traditionally used to make aromatic Japanese sake and adding them to an incredibly efficient brewer's yeast that has the nasty habit of sometimes leaving the ales with an unpleasant spicy flavour. The end result was the creation of a new beer brew that has a hint of sake to it. You can read more in The Economist article that I wrote on this subject here.