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Week in Review: May 19–23

Sperm-sex–sensing sows; blocking a pain receptor extends lifespan in mice; stop codons can code for amino acids; exploring the tumor exome

By | May 23, 2014

Mother’s choice?

WIKIMEDIA, KEITH WELLERFemale pigs may be able to sense and respond differently to sperm based on which sex the gametes dictated for the offspring, researchers from the University of Sheffield and their colleagues reported in BMC Genomics this week (May 21). In a series of experiments, the researchers showed that the oviducts of inseminated sows showed increased or decreased expression of various genes in the presence of predominantly X or Y sperm.

“What this study shows is that one possible way in which mammalian mothers could influence the sex ratio of their offspring is through differential . . . responses to X and Y chromosome sperm,” said evolutionary biologist Tommaso Pizzari, who was not involved in the work.

Pain, inflammation, and aging

WIKIMEDIA, RAMAEliminating the pain receptor TRPV1 in mice is associated with longer lifespan and a more youthful metabolism, a team led by investigators at the University of California, Berkeley, showed this week (May 22) in Cell. With experiments in mouse and C. elegans models, the investigators sought to address the question: “Are they reporting in more pain because as you get older you’re just in more pain, or does pain drive the aging process?” study coauthor Andrew Dillin, a molecular and cell biologist at Berkeley, told The Scientist.

The team’s results in mice and worms suggest the latter is true, and support previously reported links between pain, inflammation, and longevity. But whether they hold up in humans has yet to be seen. “It is still an animal study,” said Gerard Ahern of Georgetown University, who was not involved in the work. “How much you can apply to humans is another leap.”

Stop codons can do more

Parsing vast sets of microbial DNA data, scientists from the US Department of Energy’s Joint Genome Institute (JGI) uncovered more cases of stop codon reassignment than they’d anticipated.

“In some environments, close to 10 percent of the organisms use stop codons to code for amino acids,” JGI Director Eddy Rubin, who led the study, told The Scientist. His team’s work was published in Science this week (May 22).

“This is the first real data point that looks at [stop codon reassignment] in an objective way to ask how common is it,” said Laura Landweber, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Princeton University, who was not involved in the study.

Analyzing whole tumor exomes

WIKIMEDIA, NEPHRONA major hurdle facing the application of clinical genomics is knowing which variants are meaningful and actionable. In a Nature Medicine paper published this week (May 19), researchers from Harvard Medical School and their colleagues presented an algorithm to analyze whole-exome sequences from formalin-fixed, paraffin-embedded tumor samples.

Today, rather than scanning the genome in search of a panel of variants, “it’s becoming more logical to say, ‘Let’s get all of the information up front and use what we can,’ especially as the amount of information begins to expand,” study author Eliezer Van Allen told The Scientist.

Other news in life science:

MERS Crosses State Line
An Illinois man has contracted the Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus from the Indiana patient who was recently hospitalized, marking the first confirmed human-to-human transmission of MERS within the U.S.

Neurons in Action
Researchers image the electrical impulses of the C. elegans and zebrafish nervous systems.

Running Wild
Mice in nature appear to enjoy running on wheels, helping to settle the question whether the behavior is a just a neurotic response in lab mice.

Wireless Charger Could Power Implants
A new technology allows for charging up tiny electronics from a distance, perhaps powering devices deeply embedded within tissue.

Birds of a Genome
Married couples have more similar DNA than random pairs of people, a study shows.

Kawasaki Disease a Wind-borne Malady
Cases of the debilitating childhood disease in Japan are likely caused by toxins that float in from China’s farmlands, a study finds.

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