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Week in Review: June 2–6

The malnourished microbiome; innate immunity and beige fat; tools for stem cell self-renewal; predicting tomorrow’s PIs; MERS update

By | June 6, 2014

Malnutrition stymies microbiome maturation

WIKIMEDIA, JULIE6301Investigators from Washington University in St. Louis and their colleagues have found that early-life malnutrition can have profound impacts on a child’s gut microbiome, even after he’s been provided with a healthy diet. Their work was published in Nature this week (June 4).

The study represents “a real step forward in terms of having a technique to look at development of the microbiome in children,” Josef Neu, a pediatrician at the University of Florida who studies gastrointestinal health of neonates and was not involved in the work, told The Scientist.

Beige fat and innate immunity

WIKIMEDIA, BIGPLANKTONTwo groups working to elucidate the mechanisms behind different metabolic phenomena stumbled on the same unexpected discovery: “there’s an immune pathway that regulates thermogenesis,” or the production of heat within adipose tissue, explained Peter Tontonoz, who studies lipid signaling at the University of California, Los Angeles, but did not participate in the research. Both teams found that the activation of beige fat into energy-burning tissue relies on an innate immunity pathway that also plays a role in pathogen response. Their work was published in Cell this week (June 5).

Twelve transcription factors do the trick

GRAZIANO MARTELLOInteractions among a dozen transcription factors make mouse embryonic stem cells (ESCs) capable of self-renewal, a team of researchers from the Wellcome Trust-Medical Research Council Cambridge Stem Cell Institute and the Microsoft Research Computational Science Laboratory reported in Science this week (June 5). Separately, a group led by scientists from the University of Chicago pinpointed a protein-protein interaction that enables mouse ESCs to differentiate.    

“The conclusion here is that the gene network of self-renewal is simple, which should be the case,” said Sui Huang, a professor at the Institute for Systems Biology in Seattle, who was not involved in either study.

Skipping enzymes and chemicals

USDA-NRCS PLANTS DATABASE, ROBERT H. MOHLENBROCKScientists from the University of Georgia and at Tennessee’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory have engineered a heat-loving bacterium, Caldicellulosiruptor bescii, to directly convert switchgrass into ethanol. Their work, which could pave the way toward lower-cost production of grass-derived biofuel, was published in PNAS this week (June 2).

While the approach has shown promise in the lab, David Tilman, an ecologist at the University of Minnesota who was not involved in the study, cautioned that it’s far from commercially viable at this point. “The alcohol production is way too low, but it’s something that can be worked on and developed,” Tilman told The Scientist.

Other news in life science:

Final Straw for STAP?
Independent analysis uncovers suspected mouse cell mix-up, while stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency lead author Haruko Obokata agrees to retract the work in full.

Prosthetics Pioneer Dies
Melvin Glimcher, inventor of the prostethic “Boston Arm,” which moves in response to electrical signals from the wearer, has passed away at age 88.

Leptin’s Effects
The hormone leptin, which signals fullness to animals, acts not only through neurons but through glia, too.

Three-Parent Babies in “Two Years”
The U.K.’s human embryo research agency says that a new mitochondrial replacement technique is safe and could be approved soon, paving the way for three-parent IVF.

Can Publication Records Predict Future PIs?
Researchers present a tool that uses a scientist’s PubMed data to estimate the probability of becoming a principal investigator in academia.

News of interest elsewhere:

Researchers in Saudi Arabia have detected, isolated, and sequenced Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV) from a camel that matched the virus derived from the animal’s owner, a 44-year-old man who died of a lab-confirmed MERS infection, according to a paper published in The New England Journal of Medicine this week (June 4). The findings represent the most compelling evidence yet for transmission of MERS-CoV from camels to humans.

“All the evidence points to camels being the culprit,” Jonathan Ball, a professor of virology at Nottingham University who was not involved in the work, told BBC News. “This is probably the first time the virus sequence is identical and suggests this is a case of transmission.”

Columbia University’s Ian Lipkin told NPR’s Shots blog that the study “unequivocally demonstrates that transmission from camels to people is possible.”

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia this week (June 4) issued new MERS statistics based on a “rigorous examination” of existing data, according to a Ministry of Health announcement. “Following the review, the new total number of cases recorded in the Kingdom between 2012 and today, is 688,” including 282 fatalities, the health ministry announced—that’s 113 more cases than previously reported, New Scientist pointed out. The health ministry did not specify any reason for the difference, noting only that it “reviewed historical cases . . . to give a more comprehensive understanding of the facts” on the incidence of MERS infection in the country.

LEGO will market what it’s calling a “female minifigure set” depicting three women scientists (a paleontologist, an astronomer, and a chemist), the company announced in a video posted to YouTube this week (June 3). Pricing for the children’s toy is to be announced, but the company said the product could hit shelves this August. (See “Speaking of Science,” The Scientist, October 2013.)

Hat tip: Scientific American’s Guest Blog

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