Studying Episodic Memory through Food-Caching Behavior in Birds

A black-capped chickadee nibbles on a seed
A black-capped chickadee nibbles on a seed.

Your ability to navigate space and time is anchored in your memory, particularly episodic memory, which catalogues the experiences you have in a given location. This type of memory is shaped by complex neural networks firing within your hippocampus. So how exactly do we store memories of the hundreds of things that happen to us in a day, especially when they unfold in the same settings?

There are theories as to how we form single-shot, or “episodic”, memories, many of which center around the activity of place cells, which light up when you are in a specific environment. The idea here is that, with every event that happens in a place, these cells would shift and fire in novel patterns. Scientists at the Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute at Columbia University questioned this—while it is known that place cell activity can certainly be affected by experiences, they wondered whether there could be an alternative explanation for episodic recall that wouldn’t require the constant remapping of one’s core memory of a place.

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A Silent Killer: Tracking the Spread of Xylella fastidiosa 

Olive tree infected with X. fastidiosa
Olive tree infected with X. fastidiosa

Thought to have arrived in Italy on a plant imported from Costa Rica in 2008, the plant pathogen Xylella fastidiosa was first detected there in 2013. Its subsequent unchecked spread resulted in the loss of millions of olive trees across Southern Apulia, a region in Italy responsible for the production of roughly 12% of the world’s olive oil (5). The pathogen moved swiftly and, to date, a total of 20 million olive trees have been infected across Europe.  

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The Tiniest Test Tube: Studying Cell-Specific Protein Secretion

Free floating single cells, blue
Researchers explore an innovative method for single-cell analysis

Cells produce proteins that serve different purposes in maintaining human health. These bioactive secretions range from growth factors to antibodies to cytokines and vary between different types of cells. Even within a certain cell type, however, there are individual cells that produce more secretions than others, a phenomenon that especially interests scientists studying cell-based therapies. In contrast to molecular therapies, which typically involve specific genes or proteins, a primary challenge to crafting cell therapies is the wide range of functional outputs seen in cells that have the same genetic template. This leads to the question of what molecular properties, from a genomic and transcriptomic perspective, would lead one cell to produce more of a protein than its companions. 

There have been few investigative strategies put forth that allow scientists to connect a cell’s characteristics and genetic coding with its secretions. In July 2023 a team of scientists published a paper in Nature Communications outlining an innovative solution: little hydrogel particles, or “nanovials”, that essentially serve as tiny test tubes and can be used to measure protein secretion, track transcriptome data, and identify relevant surface markers in a single cell.

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Addressing the Problem of Dosing in Gene Therapy

One key obstacle to crafting effective gene therapies is the ability to tailor dosing according to a patient’s needs. This can be tricky because even if protein production is successful, staying within the therapeutic window is paramount—too much of a protein could be toxic, and too little will not produce the desired effect. This balance is difficult to achieve with current technologies. In a study recently published in Nature Biotechnology, researchers at Baylor College of Medicine investigated a possible solution to this problem, engineering a molecular “on/off” switch that could regulate gene expression and maintain protein production at dose-dependent, therapeutic levels.

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Transformative Gene Therapies Greenlit for Sickle Cell Disease

In sickle cell anemia, red bloods cells elongate into an abnormal “sickled” shape

Sickle cell disease is a debilitating blood disorder that causes recurrent pain crises and severe health effects, and can drastically impact quality of life. Recently, Vertex Pharmaceuticals and CRISPR Therapeutics introduced Casgevy, or exa-cel, a novel form of gene therapy that could radically change the management of sickle cell disease. On the heels of exa-cel’s approval in Britain, this groundbreaking therapy was also recently approved in the U.S.

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Shocking Revelation about Starfish Anatomy: Just a Head

Two starfish on the beach
Recent research reveals that starfish anatomy is even stranger than previously thought

Most animals in the world are what biologists refer to as “bilateral”—their left and right sides mirror one another. It is also typically easy to tell which part of most animals is the top and which is the bottom. The anatomical arrangements of certain other animals, however, are slightly more confounding, for instance in the case of echinoderms, which include sea urchins, sand dollars and starfish. These animals are “pentaradial”, with five identical sections of the body radiating from a central axis. The question of how these creatures evolved into such a state has been a puzzle pondered by many a biologist, with little progress made until recently. In a new study published in Nature, scientists closely examining the genetic composition of starfish point to some key evidence that suggests a starfish is mostly just a head.

Starfish are a deuterostome, belonging to the superphylum Deuterostomia. Most deuterostomes are bilateral, leading scientists to believe that, despite their peculiar body plan, starfish evolved from a bilateral ancestor. This is supported by the fact that starfish larvae actually start out bilateral, and eventually transform into the characteristic star shape. But where the head of the starfish is, or whether it even has one, has proved difficult for scientists to parse out, especially since their outward structure offers no real clues.

There have been a number of theories posited, such as the duplication hypothesis—where each of the five sections of a starfish could be considered “bilateral”, placing the head at the center—and the stacking hypothesis, which asserts that the body is stacked atop the head. In a bilateral body plan, anterior genes broadly code for the front, or the head-region, and posterior genes code for the trunk, or the “torso”, and tail. Researchers in this new study looked at the expression of these genes throughout the body plan as a possible source of clarity as to which part of the starfish is its head and which parts comprise the body.

To this end, researchers used advanced molecular and genetic sequencing techniques including RNA tomography and in situ hybridization. RNA tomography allowed them to create a three-dimensional map of gene expression throughout the limbs of the sea star Patiria miniate. In situ hybridization is a fluorescent staining technique that offered them a means by which to examine where exactly anterior or posterior genes are expressed in the sea star’s tissue, providing a clearer picture of genetic body patterning.

Remarkably, scientists found that anterior or head-coding genes were expressed in the starfish’s skin, including head-like regions appearing in the center, or midline, of each arm, while tail-coding genes were only seen at the outer edges of the arms. Perhaps even more remarkable was the lack of genetic patterning accounting for a trunk or torso, leading scientists to the conclusion that starfish are, for the most part, just heads.

Whether this holds true for other echinoderms remains to be proven, and further investigations into starfish anatomy may seek to pinpoint where in the timeline the trunk was lost. Overall, research like this helps scientists understand how life came to look the way it does. Oddly shaped creatures like the humble starfish can offer insight into the strange evolutionary processes that result in such rich biodiversity across the animal kingdom.


Works cited:

  1. ‘A disembodied head walking about the sea floor on its lips’: Scientists finally work out what a starfish is | Live Science
  2. Molecular evidence of anteroposterior patterning in adult echinoderms | Nature
  3. Starfish Are Heads–Just Heads – Scientific American
  4. Study reveals location of starfish’s head | Stanford News

Custom in vitro Transcription Reagents for Manufacturing RNA Therapeutics

Doctor filling syringe

Research into vaccines based on RNA began decades ago when scientists theorized that they could harness RNA to produce viral proteins within a cell, prompting a protective immune response. RNA vaccine research drew scientists’ attention during the development of SARS-CoV-2 vaccines during the COVID-19 pandemic, which opened the door for research targeting other diseases with RNA-based therapeutics.

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Ancient Worm Reveals Simple Hack for Remaining Ageless After 46,000 Years

If you could, would you enter a suspended metabolic state for the chance to reawaken 46,000 years from now, as you are today? For one nematode discovered in Siberian permafrost, the answer is a resounding “yes”. A study published in late July of this year details recent research that expands on a paper published in 2018 wherein scientists announced that they successfully reanimated a small but resilient nematode, or roundworm, who remained alive for tens of thousands of years in a state called cryptobiosis after being frozen in extreme Arctic soil conditions.

Blue roundworm on a black background
Caenorhabditis elegans, a type of roundworm whose dauer larvae are capable of cryptobiosis
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Streamlining Disease Diagnostics to Protect Potato Crops

A potato farmer holds a handful of potatoes. Scientists are working to protect potato crops from disease.
The WSPCP works to provide seed potato growers with healthy planting stock

The mighty potato—the Midwest’s root vegetable of choice—is susceptible to a variety of diseases that, without proper safeguards, can spell doom for your favorite side dishes. Founded in 1913 and housed in the Department of Plant Pathology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the Wisconsin Seed Potato Certification Program (WSPCP) helps Wisconsin seed potato growers maintain healthy, profitable potato crops year-to-year through routine field inspections, a post-harvest grow-out and laboratory testing.

While WSPCP conducts visual inspections for various seed potato pathogens, their diagnostic laboratory testing is primarily focused on viruses such as Potato virus Y (PVY), which can cause yield reduction and tuber defects, along with select bacteria such as Dickeya and Pectobacterium species that cause symptoms like wilting, stem rot and tuber decay.

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Confronting an Emerging Pathogen: Candida auris

Candida auris illustration
Candida auris is a fungal infection sweeping through healthcare sites across the U.S.

HBO’s The Last of Us has successfully brought fungal pathogens to the forefront of the pandemic discourse, raising questions as to whether a fungus could really pose a significant threat to humans. While scientists agree that the fungus featured in the show, cordyceps, won’t be making the required inter-species jump any time soon, there is a fungal pathogen that has been taking root in hospitals across the U.S. which gives some cause for concern: Candida auris.

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