Week in Review: March 20–24

What proposed budget cuts could mean for NIH; how astrocytes help control circadian behaviors in mice; how mutations confer virulence to vaccine-derived polio; why cancer risk is in part “random”

Mar 24, 2017
Tracy Vence

Proposed cuts

The US National Institutes of Health (NIH) budget has been trimmed before, but never at once by the amount proposed by the Trump administration last week. Although experts say it is unlikely, the agency stands to lose nearly 20 percent of its budget if the White House plan is approved?

First-time NIH grant applicants and other early-career researchers would likely be affected most, said Robert Cook-Deegan of Arizona State University. “NIH is particularly vulnerable [to the cuts] because . . . 75 to 80 percent of NIH’s budget is pre-allocated ever year, because it’s carried over from grants that have already been given.”

See “Trump’s Proposed Budget Would Cut Science Funding

See “Science Advocates Decry Trump’s Proposed Budget

In early 2013, the NIH budget was reduced by around 5 percent as a result of federal sequestration. The agency at that time funded fewer investigators, leading many scientists to seek private grant support.

However it shakes out, any substantial cut to the agency’s budget could really damage the scientific community, former NIH Director Elias Zerhouni told The Scientist. “It’s not a question of money; it’s a question of the human capital behind those funds.

Glia and circadian behaviors

In addition to helping regulate the molecular rhythms dictated by the murine master clock, astrocytes in the rodents’ suprachiasmatic nuclei help control certain circadian behaviors, such as locomotion, scientists showed in three recent studies.

“Random” cancer risk

Following up on a 2015 study, in which they proposed that random mutations acquired through normal stem cell divisions are an underappreciated contributor to cancer risk, Johns Hopkins University’s  Cristian Tomasetti and Bert Vogelstein partnered with Lu Li to extend their analysis. In their latest study, the researchers again showed that the total number of lifetime stem cell divisions within a given tissue is a key risk factor for tumorigenesis.

The team again evaluated mutations unrelated to DNA replication, including those resulting from heritable and environmental factors. “This is the first estimate of the fraction of mutation types that are responsible for cancers overall, or for individual cancer types,” Vogelstein told The Scientist. The group’s results were published in Science this week (March 23).

The next step, according to MIT biological engineer Aaron Meyer who was not involved in the work, will be “to fill in the mechanistic details.”

Vaccine strain to virulent virus

A team led by scientists at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), and Tel-Aviv University has identified mutations that appear to help transform attenuated viral particles from the oral polio vaccine into a virulent pathogen, leading to some cases of vaccine-derived polio. The researchers reported their findings in Cell this week (March 23). “These mutations clearly are helping the virus,” said coauthor Raul Andino of UCSF.

Paternal mtDNA destruction

Tamas, a fruit fly mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) polymerase, plays a role in the elimination of paternal mtDNA in Drosophila sperm, researchers at UCSF showed in a Current Biology paper published this month (March 16). “What’s striking about this study is that this gene, tamas, encodes a subunit of the mitochondrial DNA polymerase, which is the enzyme responsible for replicating the mtDNA,” said evolutionary biologist Damian Dowling of Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, who was not involved in the study. “It’s a completely new function for this gene that was not known prior to this study.”

A conversation with Nasser Zawia

Neurotoxicologist Nasser Zawia, dean of the graduate school of the University of Rhode Island who was born and raised in Yemen, has observed several periods of anti-immigrant sentiment in the U.S. since the 1990s. But Zawia, a naturalized US citizen, told The Scientist that the current political and social climate is different. “I feel the impact of what’s going on now is much greater than what we experienced in the ’90s, with first war in Iraq, or [following] 9/11,” he said. “What’s going on right now is really very unsettling and very worrisome. Past events and past wars had more of a selective impact on us as Middle Eastern people and Muslim Americans. But the changes this administration is bringing about in many different facets of life is really . . . disrupting a lot.”

Other news in life science:

Qualities Tied to Potential Scientific Bias
Overestimation of effect sizes in meta-analyses is linked with early-career status, small collaborations, or misconduct records, according to a study.

U.K. Moves Forward With Three-Parent IVF
The country’s Human Fertilisation and Embryo Authority has approved the first application to carry out mitochondrial replacement therapy, which uses biological material from two women and one man to create an embryo.

Researchers Argue for “Embryoid” Ethics Revamp
Scientists issue a call to reconsider the rules governing the creation of tissues, organs, and other structures made possible by recent advances in synthetic biology.

Opinion: On “The Impact Factor Fallacy”
Papers published in low-impact journals are not necessarily low-quality scientific contributions.

Opinion: Scientists Must Think Beyond Science
If we are to defend science, we must stand together with the other truth-tellers, including our non-scientist colleagues.