Week in Review: January 9–13

Assessing marijuana research; epigenetics and genetic ancestry; producing stem cells with extra-embryonic potential; aging-related changes in glial cell gene expression; plant-soil feedback

Tracy Vence
Jan 13, 2017

Ethnicity and the epigenome

Are methylation patterns linked to genetic ancestry? Esteban Burchard at the University of California, San Francisco, and colleagues published an analysis of epigenomic information gleaned from 573 Latin American study participants in eLife on January 3.

“There are a number of studies now trying to separate out the effects of genomic ancestry and what we call social race and ethnicity,” said Dalton Conley of Princeton University in New Jersey, who was not involved in the study. “This is among the first such epigenomic studies.”

Extra-embryonic potential

Tinkering with a single microRNA, miR-34a, Lin He at the University of California, Berkeley, and colleagues manipulated murine embryonic stem cells into becoming extra-embryonic cell types. This miRNA-linked effect is in part mediated by the expression of an endogenous retrovirus, the researchers reported this week (January 12) in Science.

Excessive consumption

Researchers at University College London have established a link between binge drinking–induced overeating and agouti-related protein (AgRP) neurons in mice. Their results were published in Nature Communications this week (January 10).

The study reveals “a new mechanism for how alcohol might interact with these neurons,” said Scott Sternson, a neuroscientist at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia Research Campus who was not involved with the study. “But we need to consider alternative ways in which alcohol in vivo might lead to participation of AgRP neurons in increased eating.”

Glial gene expression

Gene expression in the brain changes with age, with the most pronounced expression-related changes occurring in glial cells, according to a study published this week (January 10) in Cell Reports. “Glial cells appear to have something of an identity crisis as we age,” study coauthors Jernej Ule and Rickie Patani of the Francis Crick Institute and University College London wrote in an email to The Scientist.

“The authors’ effort in this comprehensive work is a ‘genomic tour de force,’ showing that, overall, non-neuronal cells undergo gene expression changes at a larger scale than previously thought in aging,” noted Andras Lakatos at the University of Cambridge, U.K., who was not involved in the research. “This finding puts glial cells again at the center stage of functional importance in neurodegenerative conditions in which aging carries a proven risk.”

Plant population dynamics

Two groups this week (January 12) published investigations in Science of how resident mycorrhizal fungi and plant nutrient-gathering strategies affect ecological diversity among distinct populations of plants. “The take-home message is that these below-ground mechanisms—which, in general, we call the plant-soil feedback mechanism—[are] important in driving local plant diversity,” François Teste University of Western Australia and IMASL-CONICET/UNSL in San Luis, Argentina, a coauthor on one of the studies, told The Scientist.

Other news in life science

Oliver Smithies, Technologist Behind Knockout Mice, Dies
The Nobel laureate and Lasker awardee developed tools that facilitated decades of genetics research, including starch gel electrophoresis and gene targeting.

National Academies Detail the State of Weed Science
A new report summarizes what we know about the impacts of marijuana use, as more states have legalized the drug for both medical and recreational purposes.

Drug Approval Timeline Same as 20 Years Ago
A report finds that new medications still take about 12 years to go from patent to patient.

Will There Be a Brexit Brain Drain?
Some academics in the United Kingdom say they are considering leaving the country for greener pastures, as Britain’s exit from the European Union takes effect.