Week in Review: September 5–9

Environmental magnetite in the human brain; prion structure takes shape; watching E. coli evolve in real time; learning from others’ behavior 

By | September 9, 2016

Magnetite on the brain

Scientists found spherical nanoparticles of magnetite in more than three dozen postmortem human brains. While angular magnetite particles are known to be produced by the brain, these spherical particles resemble those found in polluted air.

“This is the first report of iron oxide particles in brain tissue that may have come from an industrial source. As such, this opens up questions about potential neurotoxic effects from industrial pollutants that had not been previously considered,” University of Florida’s Jon Dobson, who researches the potential neurodegenerative role of biologically produced magnetic compounds and was not involved in the study, told The Scientist.

Solving prion shape

Researchers have determined the preliminary structure of a shortened form of infectious prion, which in its full length causes mad cow disease and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. According to the study, published this week (September 8) in PLOS Pathogens, the prion segment looks like a coiled mattress spring.

“For the first time, we have a structure of an infectious mammalian prion,” said Giuseppe Legname of Scuola Internazionale Superiore di Studi Avanzati in Trieste, Italy, who was not involved in this study. “It’s a very important paper.”

Evolution in action

Plating E. coli on a giant, 2-foot-by-4-foot chunk of agar infused with a gradient of antibiotics, researchers were able to document bacterial evolution in time and space, according to a study published this week (September 8) in Science.

“You can see evolutionary branching as it happens,” Luke McNally, an evolutionary microbiologist at the University of Edinburgh who was not involved in the work, told The Scientist. “It’s amazingly, strikingly beautiful.”

Social learning neurons

Neurons in a region of the human brain called the rostral anterior cingulate cortex (rACC) play a role in learning from others’ actions, according to a study published this week (September 6) in Nature Communications.

“The idea [is] that there could be an area that’s specialized for processing things about other people,” says Matthew Apps, a neuroscientist at the University of Oxford who was not involved with the study. “How we think about other people might use distinct processes from how we might think about ourselves.”

More news in life science

Continued Fallout from Macchiarini Misconduct

The sacked researcher and surgeon was not properly vetted by the Swedish institutions that hired him in 2010, according to an independent review panel. 

Duke Sued for Millions over Fraudulent Data

A lawsuit claims that Duke University and biologist Erin Potts-Kant used bad data in projects funded by dozens of government grants.

Novartis Drops Gene Therapy Research

The company has shuttered its experimental cell and gene cancer therapy unit, firing more than 100 researchers.

Zika Update

Virus’s genome to aid in diagnoses; bees caught in crossfire of mosquito sprays; Zika spreads in Asia; US Congress revisits Zika funding

In Southern Africa, Human Genetics Tied to Environment

Ancestries of nearly two dozen indigenous groups in the region reveal a close link between the genetic clustering of populations and the Kalahari Desert’s ecogeography.

Genome Digest

What researchers are learning as they sequence, map, and decode species’ genomes

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