Week in Review: October 6–10

Nobel Prizes awarded; transgenerational effects of mitochondrial mutations; fat-targeted gene knockdown; Ebola updates in Spain and U.S.

Oct 10, 2014
Jef Akst

Brain’s “Inner GPS” and Nanoscopy Take Nobels

WIKIMEDIA, THOMAS FISHER RARE BOOK This year’s Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine goes to cognitive neuroscience John O’Keefe of University College London, who takes one half of this year’s prize for his work identifying place cells, while husband-and-wife team May-Britt and Edvard Moser, both professors at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), will share the second half for their discovery of so-called grid cells. Together, the Laureate’s work paved the way for identifying an inner positioning system within the brain.

In chemistry, Eric Betzig of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia Farm Research Campus, Stefan Hell of the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry and the German Cancer Research Center, and William Moerner of Stanford University will share the 2014 Nobel Prize equally “for the development of super-resolved fluorescence microscopy,” which has allowed scientists to “study living cells in the tiniest molecular detail,” the Nobel Foundation said in its press release announcing the award.

Mom’s Mito Mutations Shorten Pup Lifespan

WIKIMEDIA, WHATIGUANAMutations in a mother mouse’s mitochondrial DNA can affect her offspring, according to research published this week (October 9) in Scientific Reports. Specifically, those pups that inherited mitochondrial DNA mutations from their mom’s eggs had approximately one-third shorter lives.

“The overriding importance of this kind of work is the demonstration that the mitochondrial DNA, which is maternally inherited, carries the genetic information that can be critical for longevity,” Douglas Wallace, a professor of pathology and laboratory medicine at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, told The Scientist.

Opinion: Separate Training from Research Budgets

WIKIMEDIA, PEN WAGGENERWith the number of postdocs on the rise, and not enough job openings to accommodate the growth, Viviane Callier of the Ronin Institute for Independent Scholarship and the Scientific Consulting Group calls for universities to step up. Postdocs carry out the brunt of the scientific research at American research universities,” she wrote, “[y]et many are institutionally invisible—counting neither as students nor as staff, and thus often not receiving salary, health insurance or retirement plans comparable to university staff.” The solution, she adds, is “to change the incentives created by the funding policies of federal agencies such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF).”

Finding fat

YONG-HEE KIMA small peptide that targets adipose cells in obese mice can help deliver a DNA construct that knocks down expression of a key fatty acid binding protein, reducing body weight and improving the metabolic profiles of mice on a high-fat diet. Researchers reported the findings this week (October 5) in Nature Materials, and they could inform further study of the functions of adipocytes—a notoriously intractable cell type.    

“It’s always welcome when there is a new technology to deliver specific targeting molecules, whether they’re RNAi or small molecules, to restricted parts of the body,” said Gökhan Hotamisligil, a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health who was not involved in the study.

Spain and U.S. Deal with Ebola

WIKIMEDIA, CDC, FREDERICK MURPHYThe first case of Ebola contraction outside of West Africa, a Spanish nurse who had treated Ebola patients from Liberia and Sierra Leone, told the Spanish newspaper El Mundo that she was feeling “a little better,” but there are now three people in quarantine and more than 50 being monitored to ensure that the viral disease does not spread. Moreover, the government has put down her dog, despite a 400,000-signature strong petition asking to spare the canine.

Meanwhile, the first patient diagnosed with Ebola in the U.S. passed away on Wednesday morning, leading to debate over whether things would have gone differently if he weren’t sent home when he initially sought treatment for his symptoms. To help prevent additional Ebola cases from entering the country, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Department of Homeland Security’s Customs & Border Protection this week announced a new screening strategy that will be implemented at the five US airports that receive the vast majority of passengers from Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. “We believe these new measures will further protect the health of Americans, understanding that nothing we can do will get us to absolute zero risk until we end the Ebola epidemic in West Africa,” CDC Director Thomas Frieden said in a statement.

Other news in life science:

Polio Spreads in Pakistan

So far this year, 200 Pakistanis have been diagnosed with polio, the most in more than a decade.

Report: Sales for Antibiotics on Farms Rose

Amid concerns that the use of antibiotics may contribute to drug resistance, sales for use in livestock rose in recent years.

Stem Cell Trial Axed—Again

Second review of a controversial stem cell trial in Italy has reached the same conclusion: it’s a no-go.

Java Genes?

Eight genetic loci could partially explain why some people drink more coffee than others.

Baby Born from Transplanted Womb

A woman in Sweden gives birth to a healthy baby boy after carrying the child in a transplanted uterus for 32 weeks.