New Year’s Resolutions: The Battle Against Our Brain

By Kelly Jamieson Thomas, PhD

Each year, most of us resolves to “X”… go to the gym more often, eat a more balanced diet, save more money, watch our children’s sporting events, be early to work… While each of these resolutions is rooted in good intention, they’re broad in scope. Usually, ambiguous and drastic changes in our life are unsustainable. Research from the University of Scranton suggests that approximately 45% of Americans will set New Year’s resolutions. Of these, only 8% of us will successfully stick to our resolution.

 

Why is it so difficult to form new habits, thereby keeping our resolutions?

Our brains act as barriers that need to be redesigned through unrelenting, diligent willpower and repetition. Recently, scientists have gained some insight into how the brain forms new habits and breaks bad habits by defining our “habit circuits”. It is possible to control both our good and bad habits by conditioning our brain, but it’s not nearly as easy as writing down a New Year’s resolution and hoping for the best results.

 

How do habits form?

First, we explore new behavior through communication between the prefrontal cortex, striatum and midbrain. Dopamine, which aids learning and assigning value to goals, and positive-feedback loops, which help us figure out what works, are essential for this process. As new habits form through mindful decisions, our brain monitors our actions and determines whether or not the new habit is a keeper. Favorable habits are reinforced and the behavior begins to shift from deliberate to habitual. This process, called reinforcement-related learning, was originally explained through studies by Wolfram Schultz and Ranulfo Romo at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland.

 

Second, we form habits through repetition, which activates a feedback loop between the sensorimotor cortex and striatum. Scientists at MIT found that brain activity in the motor-control area of the striatum were initially active for the entirety of a new behavior. As the behavior became more habitual, this brain activity was only high at the beginning and end of the behavior. Through consistent repetition, the striatum effectively sets up chunks of behavior, which rely on dopamine from the midbrain. Our new habit is now a single unit of brain activity. These units are what enable us to eat those extra pieces of candy without even “thinking” about it—even when we aren’t hungry.

 

Lastly, the infralimbic region of the neocortex works with the striatum to imprint our new habit, making it semi-permanent. Dopamine aids the infralimbic cortex in controlling our new habit. Researchers found the pattern of brain activity in this region of the brain to form a unit like structure only after the behavior had become habitual, as though the infralimbic cortex changed in response to the striatum deciding the behavior was a keeper. Interestingly, if the infralimbic cortex was inhibited, the new habit disappeared.

 

How can we stick to our New Year’s resolutions?

Forming new habits, and breaking old ones, is much more complicated than intending to be more healthy, to save more money, or to be more active. We must continuously cue ourselves to behave a specific way until our resolution becomes one unit of brain activity. Then, we form a new habit, which will still need diligent monitoring to remain a habit and not be lost. But, these insights into habit-formation give us hope that we can recondition our brains.

 

Be specific in your New Year’s resolutions. For example, instead of intending to run more, commit to running every Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning at a set time. Set your alarm, lay out your running gear the night before, and make an exhilarating playlist that fires you up to run. This will prompt you, positively reinforce you, and help you repeat your new activity over and over. Eventually, you will begin to awaken as your alarm is about to ring, automatically lay out your gear, and seek out new songs for inspiration.

 

Set yourself up for success and stay committed to your resolution. Happy New Year!

 

Resolutions from the Bench

 

and some science to help you make your own!

Compiled and written by Evelyn Litwinoff and Katherine Peng

Like many of us out there, you may deem a New Year’s resolution a successful one if it lasts through January. To help create your own, the Scizzle staff is offering some tips backed by neuroscience (plus some science-y examples) that may help you to finally follow through in 2015.

 

Tip #1: Give yourself a pep-talk

Positive self-reflection boosts serotonin levels which is essential for proper functioning of the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is our impulse control and decision making center, and plays the additional role of giving flexibility to habits ingrained in the basal ganglia. For example, subjects lulled into a conversation about their positive qualities prior to reading an informational packet developed a greater intention to quit smoking or eat healthier.

 

For inspiration, see this positive worded resolution (“I am!” “I will!”):

[quote]I am going to work on becoming better at networking. I will go to more networking opportunities, and I will not spend all of my time talking only to people that I know.[/quote]

S.S., Industry Research Scientist

 

Tip #2: Focus on one or few goals

Baumeister et al. have shown over and again that willpower is a limited resource. The effort it takes to complete one goal may render us too exhausted for the next. In fact, willpower depends on glucose levels, and a good dose of glucose helps to counteract willpower depletion (though admittedly not so helpful if your resolution is a diet).

[quote]This year, I will focus on the “existing” rather than “imaginary” problems in science; and I will try to address those by my solutions. The focus of the year will change from “providing solutions” to “identifying the right problems.[/quote]

Padideh Kamali-Zare, a new science entrepreneur and a Scizzle blogger

 

Tip #3: Give yourself a distraction

In a well-known series of marshmallow experiments, children were promised more marshmallows if they could resist the one marshmallow they were left in a room with. The most successful kids distracted themselves with singing or playing, and as a bonus had better SAT scores later in life.

[quote]For 2015, I will dedicate time every day to step away from the bench/paper I’m reading/experiment I’m designing to take a mental break, even if it’s only 5 or 10 minutes long. And I promise not to go on Facebook during those breaks![/quote]

E.L., Immunologist

 

Tip #4: Remind yourself

That the feeling of being in control is inherently rewarding. Imaging has shown that subjects making choices in which they control the outcome have greater activation in structures of the brain involved in reward processing.

 

[quote]For New Year’s, my resolutions would be to 1) Actually finish one of those online statistics classes so I understand the statistical tests I will eventually be using to analyze my data (I keep starting the courses and then getting distracted and stopping about halfway), and 2) Come up with a better system to consolidate, organize and keep track of my paper reading/notes; currently things are spread across notes in PDF files, hard-copy notes, and Google Documents.[/quote]

– Susan Sheng,  neuroscientist and a Scizzle blogger

 

[quote]Read a paper a day (or at least an abstract) and be more efficient.[/quote]

– K.Z., neuroscienctist

 

[quote]My science New Year’s resolution is to learn tissue culture techniques. And also, to be more careful with the ethanol around an open flame so I light fewer things on fire.[/quote]

E.O., Postdoc

 

Have a wonderful happy new year!!!

 

’Tis the Season for Weight Loss!

 

By Robert Thorn

It is that time of year again. 2014 is coming to an end and it is time to think about our past year and make our New Year’s resolutions for 2015. If you are like me (and many others), one of your 2014 resolutions was weight loss, and perhaps you haven’t quite met your goals. A quick search of weight loss supplements on the internet will lead you to a myriad of “miracle” weight loss solutions. Its so simple, just put lemon in your water, drink 5 glasses of ice cold water a day, and/or replace one meal a day with a shake/bar/handful of nuts. Well, now it’s time to throw away all those snake oil voodoo weight loss “solutions” because there may be a new molecule in town to help cut the pounds.

 

A paper recently published in Nature Medicine from a group in Germany has shown that there may be a way to trick your body into losing weight by mimicking hormones that normally help regulate the body’s response to food. They aimed to affect three hormones that are known to be important for the regulation of weight in obesity. The three hormones are glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1), glucose-dependent insulin tropic polypeptide (GIP) and glucagon. These three hormones have been studied by themselves to determine if they could have any positive effect in controlling obesity. Scientists have created molecules, called agonists, that are able to activate the receptors that are normally activated by either glucagon, GIP or GLP-1. By themselves these agonists allow a modest benefit to obesity, but also came with negative side effects that would make them unpleasant to use. It has been hypothesized that regulating all three of these hormones at once would allow for greater anti obesity effects with less unpleasant side effects.

 

First, the group decided to test how using three agonists at once, one each for GLP-1, GIP and glucagon, would alter weight loss in a mouse model with an altered diet high in sucrose to induce obesity. The tests showed a synergistic effect by using all three, versus using each one individually in weight lose in this mouse model. Next, they decided to attempt to create a single molecule that would be an agonist to each of the 3 hormones at once (aka a triagonist). Previously, coagonist molecules that affected different combinations of the three pathways had been designed and by using these sequences and structures they were able to rationally design a triagonist to all thee hormones. Once designed and synthesized, the triagonist was tested for activity with the intended receptors (i.e. the receptors for GLP-1, GIP and glucagon) and for non-intended receptors. These tests showed that the triagnoist was effective in activating all 3 intended receptors and when tested against a set of other receptors it showed no cross reactivity, suggesting that the triagonist is a specific triagonist of GLP-1, GIP and glucagon.

 

Once in vitro studies showed that the triagonist interacted with receptors as they were designed to be, the group moved on to testing in mice. They again used the diet induce obesity mouse model to test the triagonist. Both short term and long term exposure to the triagonist showed a decrease in overall body fat in the mice, without any hypoglycemia. Remarkably, this difference was even greater than the difference previously seen with coagonists. In addition to the weight reduction, treatment with the triagonist was also able to slow the progression of type II diabetes in these mice. To further test the triagonist, rat models of both obesity and diabetes were treated with the triagonist. In both of these models the triagonist was able to alleviate the effects of both obesity and diabetes respectively. To date, there have been other triagonists designed and tested by other groups, but none have shown such robots anti-obesity and anti-diabetes effects as this triagonist.

 

This level of weight loss from a single molecule is extremely promising as a way to fight the ever-growing obesity epidemic. Not only does the increased obesity negatively affect individuals who are obese, but it also can act as a burden on public health. This triagonist could serve as a safer, non-invasive alternative to biatric surgery, which is oftentimes the only solution for some cases of obesity. While all this information is very promising, it is important to note that mouse models don’t always translate perfectly to human trials but it is definitely possible that in the next few years we may very well have a “miracle” weight loss solution that actually works!

‘Tis The Season of Food Follies, Fa-la-la-la-la…

 

By Lori Bystrom, PhD

 

“Sleigh bells ring, are you listening?” It is hard not to hear the lyrics of these and other seasonal songs during the holidays, just as it is difficult to ignore the colorful array of decorations, and the aroma of pine trees, cinnamon, ginger, and cloves. Engulfed by the sensory overload of the holidays, many of us cannot help but become overzealous consumers of holiday foods. As one might imagine, however, this is not good for our health.

 

In fact, there is evidence that the dietary choices we make during the holidays or the days leading up to big festivities, such as Christmas and New Year’s, can take a toll on our health. Holiday overconsumption can especially pose a problem in developed countries, where obesity is on the rise and is linked to numerous health problems. A recent study in PLOS ONE, for example, has shown that during the 2010-2011 American holiday period (Thanksgiving to New Year’s) food expenditures increased 15% compared to the pre-holiday period (July to Thanksgiving). Moreover, 75% of this increase was due to expenses on less-healthy food.

 

Interestingly, the study also found that the sales of healthy foods increased by 29.4% during the post-holiday periods (New Year’s to March), while the sales of less-healthy food remained the same as the holiday period. As a result, the calories purchased/week increased by 9.3% compared to the holiday period, and by 20.2% compared to the pre-holiday (baseline) period. Such behavior does not bode well, given that there is an ongoing obesity epidemic in many developed countries.

 

Although it would appear we have little control over our behavior during the holiday season –many of us acting like zombie consumers enticed by the smells, sights, and sounds of the holidays— there must be a way we can control these festive compulsions. Perhaps one way to tackle the obesity epidemic would be to reduce the cumulative increase of calories/unhealthy food that result from the holidays. But how do we resist the many temptations of the holidays? And, if we cannot resist, how can we undo the effects of our holiday choices afterwards?

 

In a recent report by PBS NEWSHOUR, Sendhil Mullainathan, an economics professor at Harvard University and cofounder of the behavioral economics consultancy ideas42, discusses several holiday gifts that might improve our unhealthy behaviors during the holidays and beyond.

 

He suggests buying smaller plates (similar to the standard plate size of the 1960s) to reduce the amount of food we consume at one sitting. In addition, he recommends a product made by Meal Measure that is used to control the amount of starches, vegetables, fruits, and protein put on your plate. Furthermore, could a candy/cookie jar that locks you out for a few minutes after opening stop you from eating more candy or cookies? The makers of The Kitchen Safe think so.

 

Other gadgets that may help prevent or reduce holiday weight gain include the Fitbit  or the Jawbone UP, which help you keep track of your exercise, sleep, and food intake patterns. And, if you find yourself too sluggish after the holidays, then perhaps Clocky or Tocky  the runaway alarm clock will get your day started sooner and keep you more active.

 

It remains to be seen whether or not any of these products actually help us control our holiday food intake or weight gain. Regardless, understanding our dietary patterns before, during, and after the holidays is likely to help researchers/ product innovators develop new strategies that may improve our unhealthy holiday/everyday dietary habits.

 

For now, as we fa-la-la-la our way through the holidays, it might be best to be mindful of our food intake or at least to make more effective New Year’s resolutions so we can fa-la-la away our holiday food follies.

Robots to Replace Scientists

 

By Susan Sheng

[quote style=”boxed” ]Life science research today is incredibly slow, error-prone, monotonous, and expensive with researchers spending many hours a day every day just moving small volumes of liquids from one place to another.[/quote]

Transcriptic

 

If I had to make a wish-list of things that would be helpful in my daily life, a robot to help me with the more repetitive and mundane lab tasks would be at the top of that list. Whether it’s pipetting samples to run a Bradford assay or running a western blot to look at changes in protein expression, there are many tasks in a typical biological sciences laboratory that are tedious and time-consuming, but necessary for answering scientific questions. While certain techniques, such as DNA sequencing, have benefited from advances in technology and automation, for many other techniques, either an automated option does not exist, or the machines necessary to run the protocols are too expensive for most research labs to consider. Luckily, as highlighted in a recent Nature commentary, there is growing interest in automating research in the hopes of improving its efficiency and reproducibility.

 

Two California companies, Emerald Cloud Laboratories and Transcriptic, are trying to offer cost-effective access to wet-lab experiments. Both offer web interfaces which allow scientists to design wet-lab experiments which are then carried out at a remote facility. Emerald Cloud Laboratories, which started as an internal system to streamline research at the biotechnology company Emerald Therapeutics, offers 40 common lab protocols, including western blotting, light and epifluorescence microscopy, and DNA/RNA extraction and downstream procedures such as gel electrophoresis and PCR, with plans to add many more procedures to the list. Similarly, Transcriptic allows users to program experiments using their application programming interface which are then carried out in their facility. They aim to transform basic research and lower the entry costs such that anyone with an idea and web access can start a biotech company, much like how the computer science world currently operates.

 

If companies like Emerald Cloud Laboratories and Transcriptic succeed in offering reliable, low-cost research services, it could revolutionize the way research is done. By outsourcing basic, repetitive tasks, scientists can be freed up to plan and design the next experiment, or carry out more technically challenging experiments. Additionally the increase in automation could help address the issues of reproducibility in science, which have been discussed here at the Scizzle blog  among other places. Automation would bring another level of standardization and documentation to experiment design and methods, and remove problems of human variability and error. I’m sure we all have received protocols that have worked wonderfully for other people, only to struggle to successfully repeat the protocol in ourselves. Of course, automated experiments will still need to be optimized and troubleshot for each specific condition or context, but at least the factor of human error is reduced. Additionally, automation could improve the efficiency and speed in which research is done; for instance, the Allen Institute for Brain Science was able to complete in situ hybridizations in adult mouse brain tissue for over 20,000 genes in a matter of weeks due to the automation of several steps in the process.

 

It’s unlikely that robots could replace research scientists, at least for the foreseeable future. We need trained scientists to come up with the questions and the experiments that will advance our knowledge. Tasks requiring a high level of precision and dexterity will likely still require human hands, at least until that level of precision can be achieved robotically. However, robots working alongside researchers could speed up the scientific discovery process. Whether automated processes take hold in the life sciences will likely depend on cost, reliability, and the ease it which standard protocols can be customized for different experimental conditions. I for one am excited to see what the future of research has in store.

Crafty Pathogens Share the Cost of Resistance

 

By Elizabeth Ohneck, PhD

 

Bacteria have been evolving with us humans since we first came into being. Some of these microorganisms have become our indispensable partners, aiding our digestion, helping the development of our immune systems, and protecting us from less friendly bacteria. Others, in this less-friendly category, cause a vast number of illnesses and diseases, and have evolved to more insidious organisms, developing ways to outsmart our immune systems and resist antibiotics to survive within us and spread to new hosts. Pathogens like Neisseria gonorrhoeae, Staphylococcus aureus, and other multi-drug resistant “superbugs” have been continuously acquiring clever adaptations to protect themselves from our immune and antibiotic arsenals, leaving few options for patient treatment.

 

Many of the mutations that protect pathogenic bacteria from antimicrobial factors, however, come at a cost. Most antibiotics target cellular parts and processes essential to bacterial survival. To block antibiotic recognition of or action on these targets, bacteria must mutate critical cell components, which can reduce fitness, or the ability to grow and reproduce efficiently. Such fitness costs cause these mutants to grow more slowly than their wild-type, or “normal,” counterparts and other microorganisms present in the environment; thus, it is possible these mutants may not persist, as they might lose the battle for space and resources to their more fit opponents. In addition, some of these mutations decrease the ability of bacteria to produce virulence factors, which are critical in causing disease. Yet bacteria with mutations in important cell components are frequently recovered from patients with serious illness. How are these mutants able to successfully survive within the human host and cause severe disease?

 

A team from Vanderbilt University sought to answer this question with research published in Cell Host and Microbe in October. Hammer et al. examined Staphylococcus aureus small colony varients (SCVs), which are often isolated from patients with chronic disease and are resistant to multiple antibiotics. SCVs contain mutations in important biosynthetic pathways, resulting in slow growth and limited virulence factor production. Hammer et al. chose two primary mutants for their study: one unable to produce heme, and one unable to produce menaquinone, both of which are essential metabolites for bacterial respiration. Both mutants showed reduced growth rate and decreased ability to cause bone destruction in a mouse model of osteomyelitis. These defects were overcome by providing the metabolites during growth, demonstrating it is the inability of these mutants to produce the metabolites that causes their reduced fitness.

 

Interestingly, growing these two mutants together restored their growth and ability to cause bone destruction, suggesting the mutants could use the missing metabolite produced by the other mutant for normal growth and efficient virulence factor production. Surprisingly, growth of the mutant unable to produce menaquinone with another human pathogen, Enterococcus faecalis, also restored growth of the mutant, demonstrating that SCVs can use metabolites not only from other S. aureus, but from other bacterial species. Most importantly, the researchers demonstrated that these interactions can occur in patients during infection. The team isolated bacteria from the upper respiratory tract of patients with cystic fibrosis and found several bacterial species, including Staphylococcus epidermidis and Streptococcal species, that enhanced growth of the SCV mutants unable to produce heme, menaquinone, or both. In addition, they found many distinct SCVs that could rescue the growth of the heme and menaquinone mutants, as well as one another. These findings provide evidence that antibiotic resistant mutants can survive and cause disease despite fitness defects by borrowing factors important for growth from the surrounding microbial community, including the “friendly” bacteria that normally reside with in us, turning friends into foes.

 

It’s important to note that slow growth is an important factor in the antibiotic resistance of SCVs. When the heme or menaquinone synthesis mutants were rescued by growth with other strains, they became more sensitive to the antibiotic gentamicin, clearly demonstrating the trade-off between fitness and resistance. It’s plausible that wild-type S. aureus and SCVs work together for efficient, resistant infection. Wild-type strains can establish infection and increase the overall population, while the development of SCVs ensures population survival in the face of antibiotic treatment. The ability to use metabolites from other microorganisms is a clever evolutionary adaptation to compensate for the sacrifice in fitness made for the gain of antibiotic resistance, and an important consideration in the treatment of patients with bacterial infections and the development of new drugs.

Drosophila Diaries: Ken and Barbie

By Michael Burel

 

The holidays are upon us, people. This is not a drill. While the greatest gift of all during the holiday season is giving rather than receiving, you can’t help but remember how amazing (and admittedly materialistic) it is to receive things from others. “Things, for free?!” Yes, things! For free! Such a life exists even for graduate students who exploit this chance to forgo extravagance in exchange for desperately needed life necessities: Tupperware, socks, food, shelter, social interaction, separation anxiety from work, relief from the dark ends of the seemingly infinite thesis tunnel. You know, the basics.

 

Perhaps one of the most interesting side effects of the holiday season is nostalgia, that wistful remembrance of holidays past. Remember getting that new LEGO set when you were six-years-old? The excitement of unwrapping a new video game? The screech you squealed when you finally got the newest iteration of Ken and Barbie dolls? In fact, it could have been this latter gift that spurred your desire to pursue science, seeing as Barbie herself has pursued over 150 careers in her lifetime , one of the most recent of which was computer engineering. Though her accompanying book I Can Be a Computer Engineer was met with sweeping criticism about Barbie’s reliance on male figures to code her ideas, it nevertheless was an imperative step towards increasing STEM awareness among the highly impressionable toddler set.

 

Quite surprisingly, Ken and Barbie dolls inspire not just receptive to-be scientists, but also the I-already-have-my-PhD-and-receive-federal-funding ones. In this segment of Drosophila Diaries, I’ll explore my favorite fruit fly gene name to date: ken and barbie.

 

You’ve heard it over and over again in your biology classes: Fruit flies provide an exceptional paradigm for studying gene function. They replicate quickly, possess evolutionarily conserved but simplified anatomy and cell behavior, and provide robust genetic tractability. It’s no wonder, then, why scientists in the early 1990’s used Drosophila spermatogenesis as a means to uncover novel genes that govern stem cell identity, mitosis, meiosis, morphogenesis, and cell-cell interactions. Within a single tissue, all of these processes can be empirically observed and probed ad nauseam, providing an unprecedented means to discover new genes (and subsequently name them weird, functionally-specific things).

 

In 1993, Diego Castrillon and colleagues published in Genetics a P-element mutagenesis screen that revealed mutations altering normal tissue function in the fruit fly testis. P-element mutagenesis screens offer some pretty nice incentives that expedite the genetic screening process. It involves a transposable element (those jumpy genes in our genome that plop in and out of place) inserting itself into random genes and disrupting their function by perturbing DNA sequences. P elements can be quickly mapped to genomic locations, used to make new mutant alleles of the gene it settled into, and exploited to clone out surrounding DNA and recover molecular information about its genetic geography.

 

Castrillon et al. generated over 8,000 fly lines that contained P elements plopped into random genomic locations. Of these, over 1,900 flies were screened for altered spermatogenesis; ultimately, they isolated and characterized 83 fly lines in which males couldn’t produce new progeny. These 83 fly lines were subdivided into seven different phenotypic classes, the last of which was a rather peculiar one: “sperm transfer defects.”

 

Male flies with sperm transfer defects essentially had difficulty in the final parts of copulation, the transfer of sperm to females. For example, male parts were sometimes in the wrong place, such as in twig mutant flies where the anal-genital plate was incorrectly rotated. Others, like the pointed mutation, had normal levels of motile sperm stored away but just couldn’t get them from point A to B. These two mutant flies had the right “tools” so to speak, but the final mutant fly in this phenotypic category apparently forgot its toolbox altogether. Flies mutant for one P-element insertion completely lacked external genital. In opening up the male flies, the researchers observed all the internal sexual parts were intact…but where were the outside parts? Whether plagued by holiday nostalgia or not, the scientists knew exactly what to name this new mutant gene: ken and barbie, after the dolls that also do not possess external genitalia.

 

As you’re wrapping up that gift for your brother or sister, niece or nephew, next-door neighbor, or local toy drive, consider two things: (1) how will this gift impress upon the next generation to enter into STEM fields, and (2) how will this gift inspire the hilarious naming of currently undiscovered genes and let scientists leave their comedic mark for decades to come. And if you’re in search for gift ideas for your fellow science enthusiasts, Scizzle has you covered.  ‘Tis the season.

 

If Only Santa Would be Real…When Are We Going to Have a Universal Flu Vaccine?

 

By Jesica Levingston Mac leod, PhD

Wouldn’t it be great if the answer to that question was “next year” (yep, only a 1 month wait). Sadly, besides all the astonishing efforts of various researchers groups we are just entering the clinical studies that might lead towards a safe and effective vaccine.

Probably you already heard about the antigenic mismatch with the current vaccine (for the strain H3N2): this means that the strains used in the vaccine could potentially not completely cover one or more of the seasonal influenza virus varieties. Therefore, if you got the flu shot, you might get sick anyways.

The concept behind the universal vaccine is to bypass the antigenic mismatch problem and other issues related with the way in which the vaccines are formulated nowadays. As Drs. Natali Pica and Peter Palese explained last year (Pica et al. 2013), the vaccines are prepared year by year with the aim to protect against the virus strains that are predicted to circulate in the next period. But, and there is always a “but” in predictions, an unexpected mutation in the virus not contemplated in the vaccine production, could conclude in a pandemic.

The clue came from thinking outside of the box, and breaking with the traditional dogmas in flu vaccine production. When you get infected with the influenza virus, your immune system targets the head domain of the HA (Hemagglutinin) protein, so the current vaccine production approach was to aim for this antigen. The bad news is that this domain changes every year. The flu vaccines are based on inactivated viruses , when you receive this vaccine, you will generate antibodies to fight these specific HA proteins. In Dr. Palese’s lab they are focus on regions of influenza HA protein that are highly conserved across virus subtypes, like the stalk domain of the HA protein. Also, he is engineering different HA chimeras. This strategy has been really successful, showing protection in animal models (mice and ferrets), and the vaccines were approved to go to clinical trial next year. This universal vaccine offered good protection for pandemics H5N1 and H7N9 influenza viruses.

Another strategy, published in Nature Medicine (Sridhar et al.) reports that targeting conserved core proteins using virus-specific CD8+ T cells (lymphocytes or white blood cells with a vital role in the immune system) could provide a draft for a universal influenza vaccine. But… even the scientists implicated in the research were not very positive about how long is going to take to translate this technique to the “outside the lab” world.

The third strategy is coming from an Italian group (Vitelli et al. 2013), and this potential universal influenza vaccine is been tested in animal models by the FDA.  This vaccine uses as a vector the virus PanAd3 (it was isolated from a great ape), which carries 2 genes that express proteins conserved among a variety of influenza viruses. The 2 viral proteins, the matrix protein (M1) and the nucleoprotein (NP), could be expressed for the human cells infected with the recombinant PanAd3 virus and immunize the patient against different influenza viruses.

Other entrepreneurial ideas are blooming around the world in order to solver the “influenza virus infection” problem. The influenza virus kills around 500,000 people annually worldwide (WHO), and affects very negatively the life of other hundreds of thousands. In fact, I do not know anybody who did not got the flu at least ones, I encourage to try to find somebody who was never sick with flu symptoms. This points out how universal this problem is and therefore it should get an universal solution soon.

Scizzle’s Festive Gift Guide

By Sally Burn and the Scizzle crew

 

We are hurtling at warp-speed towards Christmas and the requisite exchange of presents. Have you bought yours yet? If not, fear not – Scizzle has compiled a festive compendium of science-related gifts, to suit all budgets and scientific persuasions! Hop aboard our cyber sleigh as we take you on a journey to geek giftville…

 

For the culinary chemist

Bring science into the kitchen with a science-themed wooden chopping board from Elysium Woodworks. Designs include the periodic table, solar system, and Pi. For the boozy chef, continue the Pi theme with a Pi bottle opener and a wine chemistry glass. Looking to actually do science in the kitchen? The Molecular Gastronomy Kit is perfect for that special person in your life who finds dissatisfaction with the normal physical properties of their food. This kit allows them to mix things up a little, converting liquid ingredients into jelly cubes or powder, and allowing the formation of food beads. Because solid turkey with liquid gravy is just terribly passé.

 

For the nerdy neonate

Get them started young with the Future Scientist lab coat baby onesie or the Future Quantum Physicist bib. Then throw away that raggedy teddy and introduce giant plushy microbes into their lives. For children age ten and older, the Kid’s Edible Chemistry Kit is a great option. On a tight budget? For only $3 you can buy a set of 24 Chemistry Crayon labels, which relate the crayon to the chemical that would make that color.

 

For the overgrown child in your life

They may have a PhD, but they are still a massive geeky child at heart. We’ve seen a number of products ideal for these big kids, including the 3Doodler 3D printing pen and the Necomimi Brainwave Controlled Cat Ears (REPEAT: Brainwave! Controlled! Cat! Ears! Does it get any better than that?!).

 

For the sartorial scientist

Snappily dressed female scientists will be thrilled to receive the formula-festooned All Eyes on Unique Dress in Science from Modcloth. It has a Peter Pan neckline, pockets, and 4,5-dibromocyclohexene printed on it – need I say any more? If your intended recipient is seeking a more brightly colored number, you might like to consider this retina print dress. Based on a schematic diagram of a radial section through the retina by 19th century Italian physician Feruccio Tartuferi, the print is bright, quirky, and biologically informative!

Looking for something smaller? How about stuffing their stockings with a pair of Theory of Versatility Einstein socks? Or, for a classier edge, explore jewelry – Etsy in particular is brimming with science-themed pieces. Our favorites necklaces are the solar system necklace (featuring a cameo from our moon), lab glass necklace, silver microscope necklace, and – for the science hipster wanting to wear the most currently talked about virus – the Ebola necklace. The developmental biologist in your life might be appreciative not only of these silver mouse embryo earrings, but also of many of the other things in the maker’s Etsy store – DNA ladder earrings, Erlenmeyer flask stud earrings, and zebrafish embryo cufflinks to name but a few.

 

For the arts and crafts lover

Every self-respecting microbiologist needs a crocheted moldy petri dish. Crochet and science make excellent partners – just check out this crocheted dissected mouse with removable organs. If those two gifts are a bit too much for you to stomach, plump for a more subtle screen printed karyotype cushion or eukaryotic cell diagram cushion. For wall art, you would do well to take a look at this gorgeous original watercolor painting of a plasmid. Or, for less than ten bucks, you could just opt for this Neil DeGrasse Tyson science art print (Neil DeGrasse Tyson prayer candles can also be purchased on Etsy, should you ever have need of such an item.)

 

For the Ebenezer Scrooge of the lab (AKA the PI)

Impress your PI by getting them an attractive drink receptacle to use when they toast their latest grant/paper/tenure. We like these genetic code glasses, hand-etched with bases from the ADH1a gene which encodes an alcohol dehydrogenase – the enzyme responsible for alcohol metabolism.

 

For the Bob Cratchit of the lab (AKA the postdoc)

The modern postdoc has to perform many roles – researcher, teacher, manager, communicator, equipment-fixing-wizard, to name but a few. Help your beloved postdoc be their multitasking best with a Lab Coat for the 21st Century featuring 16 pockets, suitable for notepads, electronic tablets, and cell phones. Another option is the postdoc gift pack from PhD Comics, containing a copy of The PhD Movie and mug amongst other items.

 

For the Tiny Tim of the lab (AKA the grad student)

Coffee is the main fuel of the grad student. Upgrade their hideous old chipped mug with a Laboratory Beaker Mug – it looks like a Pyrex beaker, allowing evasion of lab coffee detection by Health & Safety! If tea is more their bag, then look no further than the Chemistry for Two Tea Infuser. A gift membership to the New York Academy of Sciences may also be appreciated.

 

For the hardcore nerd

You know you are a bona fide science fan when you receive Gallium (metal melts in your hand!) or a miniature Klein bottle (Wikipedia offers you a far better description of this than I ever could). Science!

 

For your science-phile relatives

Help them find out once and for all where they came from, and whether that family tale about great Uncle Albert being the illegitimate child of Scandinavian royalty really is true, with the 23andme genetic ancestry service. Alternatively, give them a real showstopper of a mantelpiece ornament with a diaphonized chick embryo in a jar. Much better than a carriage clock.

 

For the Russian oligarch in your life

James Watson’s Nobel medal was this month purchased by a Russian multimillionaire for $4.1million. If this is indicative of a science spending trend among rich Russians, we’d like to suggest that the following gift may be worth exploring: a first edition of What Mad Pursuit signed by Dr Crick himself, for the bargain price of $2,200. Or, for the oligarch desperate to bring back Soviet space dog Laika, a lab in South Korea will clone your dog for $100,000  (yes, OK, so Laika’s remains burned up on reentry, but it’s Christmas, let’s not be so negative.)

 

For your Secret Santa recipient

For an elegant Secret Santa gift, pick up a copy of Carl Zimmer’s Science Ink – a compilation of photos of science-themed tattoos. Another option under ten dollars is the DIY Blood Typing Test Kit. For $15, bring science magic to the lab Christmas lunch with Miracle Berry Fruit Tablets – they make sour and bitter food taste sweet! Alternatively, go the trashier route and buy your Secret Santa recipient a filthy science-themed t-shirt or pair of undies. You’re welcome. You never know, you too may end up (Mg,Fe)7Si8O22(OH)2. And with that final, barrel-scraping comment, we wish you a successful festive present hunt.

 

P.S. All the mentioned gifts are collated on a Pinterest board for your perusal.

Growing the Future

 

First Ever Biofabricate Conference a Great Success

 

By Celine Cammarata

 

Last week I had the good fortune of attending the first ever Biofabricate conference, a day-long event born of the combined genius of SynBioBeta and BioCouture. Hosted at the stylish (if somewhat creepily modern) Microsoft Research Center in Times Square, the summit brought together an illustrious group of synthetic biologists, bio-engineers, designers, architects, entrepreneurs, and more. While, as the name implied, the discussion focused on creation of materials and products through biological means, this topic turned out to be incredibly diverse – after all, what does it really mean for something to be “biofabricated”?

 

For some, biofabrication revolves around improving our communication and interaction with cells and organisms. Researchers such as Microsoft’s Andrew Phillips are developing new coding languages and platforms to program cells and other biologicals, while others continue to develop an ever-expanding suit of methods to edit genomes. Techniques to guide cell growth have led to incredible breakthroughs such as the ability to grow patient-specific replacement bones, not to mention design of made-to-order organisms at companies such as Ginkgo Bioworks.

 

For others, biofabrication is about using nature to inspire and create products and processes that, in turn, are kinder to nature – and to us. Mushrooms were a star in this realm, specifically their matrix-like mycelium that can be used to forge bricks, packaging and other materials that are entirely compostable (EcoVative is the leader in this burgeoning industry). Bacteria are also pulling their weight, helping make environmentally friendly plastics from waste and building materials without a kiln. Furthermore, bio-inspired products can open new avenues for devices that are compatible with our own bodies; Dr. Fiorenzo Omenetto’s technology to create almost anything out of silk – a fully bio-compatible and incredibly safe material – were particularly impressive.

 

Biofabrication is also explored through art and design. From growing bone and leather fineries to employing various strains of bacteria to dye textiles, work from designers who have stepped into the lab was truly multidisciplinary. Designers can also help us understand how biotechnology fits into our society, as with the playfully creative design fiction of NextNature or the exploratory architecture of Terreform1.

All these themes, more intertwined than they are disparate, share a sense of collaboration – not only among ourselves, but with nature, biology, the larger world in which humans exist. At a first glance, the work of programming cells, cultivating tissues, or using organisms to grow materials may seem to be about trying to control nature, or “play god” as the internet likes to put it. But throughout the work presented at Biofabricate it was apparent that this research and these technologies instead require acceptance of nature and the way that it works. When bacteria are dying your textiles, you have to be willing to accept their choice of patterns. When mushrooms are making your bricks, you may need to learn new architectural techniques. You can develop a programing language to talk to cells and organisms, but to do so you must learn their language. Nearly all the speakers expressed that part of the pleasure and benefit of working with biological materials and systems is that biology can often propose better solutions that we may ever think of on our own.

 

Altogether Biofabricate was a resounding success: though the conference was only publicly announced a few months in advance, registration was completely sold out and clichéd as it might sound, the gathering had a palpable energy, with every overheard snippet of conversation more interesting than the last. The barrier-breaking combination of design and biology is a winning recipe that promises many more successful gatherings to come.