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Week in Review: March 17–21

Protein appears to protect stressed neurons; vitamin A’s lifelong effects on immunity; stem cells influenced by substrates; supercharged photosynthesis through nanotechnology

By | March 21, 2014

REST and neuronal stress

WIKIMEDIA, NEPHRONThe protein REST, a transcription factor that represses neuron-specific genes during embryogenesis, may be a key regulator of neuronal stress and could help stave off neurodegeneration, researchers from Harvard Medical School reported in Nature this week (March 19). Bruce Yankner and his colleagues identified strong associations between REST and response to neuronal stressors in C. elegans, mice, and humans.

“This work establishes REST as a regulator protein we have to pay a lot of attention to in the context of neurodegeneration,” said Susan Lindquist, a molecular biologist at the MIT Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, who was not involved in the work.

Substrate influences stem cells

WIKIMEDIA, KAIBARA87Stem cells seem to “remember” the surfaces on which they were cultured, according to a study published in Nature Materials on March 16. Scientists from the University of Colorado and their colleagues found that progenitor cells grown on a firm substrate are more likely to differentiate into a bone-cell lineage, whereas cells cultured on softer surfaces are equally likely to become bone or fat cells.

The work “shows some correlations between the stiffness of gels to which these human mesenchymal stem cells were adhered and certain markers of cell commitment,” MIT’s Krystyn Van Vliet, who did not participate in the research, told The Scientist.

Vitamin A affects immunity

WIKIMEDIA, JYNTOThe offspring of pregnant mice raised on a low-vitamin A diet developed smaller lymph nodes than did animals exposed to higher levels of the nutrient in utero, and these animals showed impaired immunity as adults, a team led by researchers at the Instituto de Medicina Molecular in Lisboa, Portugal, showed in Nature this week (March 19).

“This paper shows . . . maternal diet [can] influence how the organs of the immune system, and therefore the functioning of the immune system . . . develop,” said immunologist Tom Cupedo from the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, The Netherlands, who was not involved in the work.

“Plant nanobionics”

JUAN PABLO GIRALDO AND NICOLE M. IVERSONMIT’s Michael Strano and his colleagues have boosted the photosynthetic activity of plants by implanting carbon nanotubes in their chloroplasts. Their proof-of-principle “plant nanobionics” study was published March 16 in Nature Materials.

“The idea is to merge nanomaterials with living plants to enhance their native functions and to give them non-native functions,” Strano told The Scientist.

“A lot of work is needed to make this approach applicable in the real world,” said Purdue University’s Jong Hyun Choi, who was not involved in the research. “But this work points in a direction that no one has shown before.”

More news:

Old-School Fish Guides
Experienced fish may be critical for keeping migrating populations on track, a study finds.

Other news in life science:

First STAP Report Released
Questions of whether the stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency (STAP) papers will be retracted linger as RIKEN makes public its initial investigation, finding no evidence of scientific misconduct. Read all of The Scientist’s coverage of this controversial new method.

Ancient Moss Reincarnated
Antarctic moss beds that have been frozen for more than 1,500 years yield plants that can be brought back to life in the lab.

Doubling Up on Brain Power
Europe and the United States launch a collaboration linking their government-backed initiatives to study the human brain.

Engineered Microbes Act as Sensors
Souped-up E. coli can detect an antibiotic within the guts of live mice, researchers show.

Agricultural Pest Out-Evolves GM Crop
The corn rootworm has become resistant to a genetically modified maize variety that produces an insecticidal toxin.

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