Researchers are homing in on genetics as a potential cause of obesity, but to date, few obesity-related genes have been discovered, and those tend to be very rare in the population (See " Genes Do Play a Role in Obesity,"

By | April 29, 2002

Researchers are homing in on genetics as a potential cause of obesity, but to date, few obesity-related genes have been discovered, and those tend to be very rare in the population (See " Genes Do Play a Role in Obesity,"). But a group including scientists from Myriad Genetics and University of Utah, both in Salt Lake City, and Bayer Corp., West Haven, Conn., has identified a locus that is significantly linked to high body mass index (BMI) in obese women; this locus will likely yield a gene that is more common than other known obesity genes. (S. Stone et al., "A major predisposition locus for severe obesity at 4p15-p14," American Journal of Human Genetics, 70 online at:, April 15, 2002). Many questions remain. The specific gene has not been identified, according to paper coauthor Steven C. Hunt, University of Utah. Nor do the researchers know how it works, why it was detectable mostly in women, and what may have confounded the signal in men. They do know that the locus was detectable in more than 50% of the families selected for the study. These families, with roots in northern Europe, each had a cluster of closely related people who were severely obese.
—Myrna E. Watanabe

Research, Teaching to Wed; NSF Will Officiate

Erica P. Johnson

The National Science Foundation recently announced a new program to encourage involvement by K-12 teachers in agency-sponsored research projects. According to assistant director Mary Clutter, the agency hopes to "help build long-term collaborative relationships between teachers of science and the NSF research community," thereby "facilitating professional development of K-12 teachers through research experience at the cutting edge of science." NSF grantees can request a supplement to existing funding, much as they now do to support undergraduates in the laboratory ( Awards can last for up to a year and projects can be carried out over the summer. Total payments should not exceed $10,000, including an administrative allowance of 25% of the teacher's stipend in lieu of indirect costs. Researchers can also incorporate RET funding requests in new proposals. Clutter asks scientists to visit K-12 teachers and make them aware of the RET program. "The directorate for biological sciences is particularly interested in ... partnerships with teachers at inner city schools and less well endowed school districts," she adds.

That Gadget's not Magic: It's Science

Courtesy of Robert Cailliau

Rather than worry that kids' yen for high-tech toys hinders their learning, seven European research organizations now use that fascination to teach the fundamentals of science, with an emphasis on fun. The program, "Sci-Tech — Couldn't be without it!" is also designed to illustrate the interdependency of science and technology. "Everybody uses technology through these gadgets," says Paola Catapano, head of education and communications at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN). "So we show them what's inside their gadgets and the connection it has with fundamental research." The project, which is supported by the research directorate of the European Commission, debuted in March at the Technopolis Museum in Brussels and on the Web ( Today the cartoon characters "quarkie' and "dogmatik" lead an online tour to the innards of the CD player, as they explain how lasers work, for example, and scientists are urged to offer other ideas. The program will culminate during European Science Week in November. Contributing research organizations include: the CERN, the European Space Agency, the European Southern Observatory, the European Molecular Biology Laboratory, the European Fusion Development Agreement, the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility, and Institut Laure-Langevin. These institutions recently formed EIROFORUM, an organization to educate and inform the European populace about science and technology.

The Right Odor Might Save a Life

Courtesy of Jill M. Mateo

When a species of ground squirrels called Belding first meet, they rub cheeks and appear to kiss, but in reality, they are sniffing one another. Odors emitted from facial scent glands contain information that tells the squirrels precisely how related they are; the animals use this information to determine favoritism. They will risk their lives to help mothers, sisters, and daughters, but not nieces, nephews, or more distant kin [J.M. Mateo, "Kin-recognition abilities and nepotism as a function of sociality," Proceedings: Biological Sciences, 269:7, 721-7, 2002]. Previously, animals that did not act nepotistically could not recognize kin, many researchers believed. This research shows that an animal can distinguish distant kin without necessarily treating them preferentially, says author and psychologist Jill M. Mateo, Cornell University. Discrimination of genetic differences based on odors is believed to be due to the major histocompatibility complex (MHC), a group of genes involved in immune function, Mateo says, and related kin have similar MHCs. But what MHC compounds contribute to a "family" odor and how Belding's ground squirrels—and other animals—measure unfamiliar odors remains largely unknown, although it may involve comparing odors to their own (known as self-referent phenotype matching, or the armpit effect). Mateo is pursuing these questions. Such research may yield clues about territorial defense, predator avoidance, and mating behaviors, in humans and animals alike.

New Technologies for Treatment

Three US institutes got funding for research into new medical and imaging technologies from the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB). The institute provided Yale University School of Medicine $1.4 million to develop magnetic resonance, functional, and spectroscopic imaging techniques for studying and treating neocortical epilepsy. The University of California, San Francisco, received $330,000 to develop new techniques for imaging cellular architecture and dynamics. The institute also awarded Tribofilm Research Inc., of Raleigh, NC, $420,000 to develop new silicone-free, low-friction coatings for syringes. The National Institute of Neurological Disorders contributed to the Yale award, as part of a research partnership. Congress created the NIBIB in 2000 to integrate biomedical engineering with other disciplines. (S Bunk, "Bioengineering and imaging merge at NIH," The Scientist 15[18]:1, Sep. 17, 2001.)

Researching VEGF's Ancestral Role

Erica P. Johnson

Homologs of human angiogenesis genes found in Drosophila may explain the evolution of circulatory systems. Researchers from Stanford University and Exelixis Inc., South San Francisco, Calif., think they have found the ancestral role of VEGF after they discovered vascular endothelial growth factor receptor (VEGFR) and ligand VEGF homologs in Drosophila. These findings could explain the evolutionary leap from open circulatory systems generally found in invertebrates to closed ones found in all vertebrates (N.K. Cho, "Development control of blood cell migration by the Drosophila VEGF pathway," Cell, 108:865-76, March 22, 2002.) The researchers found the VEGFR homolog and three VEGF homologs. The VEGF homologs are believed to function along the cells' migration routes. VEGFR homology is expressed in the flies' phagocytic hemocytes. These discoveries confirm that the Drosophila VEGF pathways are required in the developmental migrations of blood cells. Nam Cho, a Stanford biochemistry graduate student, says she believes that VEGF represents a common ancestor for blood vessels and blood cells. "VEGF has pointed us to [study] how guided blood cell movement may have been co-opted into guiding blood vessels and endothelial cells." Cho says the exact mechanism of locomotion for VEGF is still unclear.

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