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Week in Review: May 5–9

Synthetic base pairs replicated in vivo; cardiac stem cells questioned; miniature neurotransmissions and synaptic development; neurogenesis and memory loss; STAP saga continues

By | May 9, 2014

First semi-synthetic organism

SYNTHORXInvestigators at The Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California, have created and introduced into Escherichia coli a synthetic nitrogenous base pair that replicated within the bacteria, advancing a long-sought goal in the field—creating cells capable of producing proteins with synthetic DNA elements. Their work was published in Nature this week (May 7).

“This is the first paper to show the possibility that living organisms can have really artificial DNA with [an] expanded genetic alphabet,” Ichiro Hirao, a synthetic biologist at the RIKEN Center for Life Science Technologies in Japan who was not involved in the work, told The Scientist in an e-mail.

“Minis” are more than noise

WIKIMEDIA, BIOMED CENTRAL; SÁNCHEZ-SORIANO, TEAR, WHITINGTON, PROKOPOnce considered a byproduct of action potential-stimulated neurotransmission, miniature neurotransmission—or “minis,” in which presynaptic neurons spontaneously release synaptic vesicles that induce postsynaptic neuronal activity—are essential for synaptic maturation at Drosophila larval neuromuscular junction, according to a study published in Neuron this week (May 7). The work “adds to several reports over the last 10 years that have established a functional role for miniature events at synapses,” said Michael Sutton, an associate professor at the University of Michigan Molecular and Behavioral Neuroscience Institute, who was not involved in the research.

Questioning c-kit cells

FLICKR, GEORGE SHULKINWhether c-kit cells—supposed cardiac stem cells—can help repair cardiac tissue following a heart attack is an open question, as scientists continue to review basic research results. And a study published in Nature this week (May 7) adds to mounting evidence that c-kit cells rarely produce new heart muscle in vivo.

“The conclusion I am led to from this is that the c-kit cell is not a cardiac stem cell, at least in term of its normal, in vivo role,” said Charles Murry, a heart regeneration researcher at the University of Washington who was not involved in this study.

Neurogenesis can wipe memories away

JASON SNYDERHippocampal neurogenesis can help rodents forget once-fearful memories, scientists from the University of Toronto showed in Science this week (May 8). “In general, hippocampal neurogenesis has been thought to be the basis for memory, and they’re suggesting that it’s the basis for amnesia,” said Thomas Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, who was not involved in the work. “That’s a very controversial and provocative concept.”


More news:

Exosomes Vital for Heart Repair
Reparations after a heart attack in mice depend not on stem cells, but on the exosomes they secrete.

Exploring the Roles of Enhancer RNAs
Scientists have recently discovered that enhancers are often transcribed into RNAs. But they’re still not sure what, if anything, these eRNAs do.

Other news in life science:

Science Museum Reformer Dies
Alan Friedman, who renovated and reinvigorated the New York Hall of Science and pioneered interactive hands-on exhibits, has passed away at age 71.

RIKEN to Review 20,000 Papers
In the wake of allegations of research misconduct, the president of the Japanese research institute asks that all labs review their publications for evidence of manipulated images or plagiarism.

New Bird Flu Found in Penguins
Scientists have identified for the first time an avian influenza that infects penguins.

Finch-Powered Fumigation
Darwin’s finches use pesticide-treated cotton to line their nests and unwittingly protect themselves against parasitic fly larvae.

Extra Eyeballs on the Eye
A legion of citizen-scientist gamers helps a team of researchers explain a long-standing riddle of how the retina processes motion.

News of interest elsewhere:

Japan’s RIKEN institute on Wednesday (May 7) announced that it would not re-examine the case of Haruko Obokata, who in an internal investigation was deemed guilty of research misconduct related to her team’s stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency (STAP) publications. The findings in those papers were questioned because of allegations of image manipulation, among other things, but the RIKEN institute  said it would be focusing instead on its ongoing investigation of potential misconduct by other researchers there. While RIKEN upholds that Obokata was guilty, another—arguably bigger problem—that has plagued the STAP papers, and by extension, the stem-cell field at large, is that several researchers who’ve tried to reproduce the studies’ results have failed. Writing in F1000Research yesterday (May 8), Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Kenneth Lee noted in a non-peer-reviewed paper that he and his colleagues “have not been able to produce STAP stem cells from neonatal splenocytes or lung fibroblasts using the acid-based treatment reported by Obokata et al.” (In March, Lee said he had submitted a paper showing as much to Nature, proposing it might be a fit for the journal’s Brief Communications Arising, but claimed his manuscript was rejected.)

“As this new paper rightly discusses, there may be good reasons why Ken’s and other labs aren’t getting STAP cell methods to work, and someday someone may get it to work in some form, but sadly the simpler possible explanation growing in strength each day is that STAP is just not real,” the University of California, Davis’s Paul Knoepfler wrote on his blog.

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