Giant Rodent, Lowered Cancer Rates: What Genetic Analysis Reveals about the Capybara and Cancer

Do you find the thought of a giant rodent off-putting? Do your thoughts go to huge rats running amuck in dark allies, threatening unsuspecting passers by?

I personally hold rodents in low esteem. Rats, mice…who needs them? With the exception of cavies. I spent countless hours as a child playing with guinea pigs. We had as many as 16 of these little rodents at one time (the males are very capable of chewing or climbing out of cardboard boxes to reach a female in the next box). The baby guinea pigs were very cute and the adults had quite pronounced personalities, and a lot of attitude.

It was this history with guinea pigs that made me interested in learning more about the largest rodent in the world, the South American capybara (Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris). These family-oriented herbivores are found in savannas and forested areas, living in groups of as many as 100 members. They are excellent swimmers and can remain underwater for as long as 5 minutes. In fact, capybara mate only in the water. (Perhaps it’s not surprising then that the South American alligator, the caiman, is one of the capybara’s greatest predators.)

Photos of an adult male capybara.
A male capybara, with a scent gland (called a morillo) on his head. Photo by: Charles J Sharp – Own work, from Sharp Photography, sharpphotography, CC BY-SA 4.0.

With their squared-off nose and lack of tail, capybaras actually resemble guinea pigs. However, these oversized cavies weigh as much as 40 pounds. and can reach 24” at the shoulder, the size of an average standard poodle. Guinea pigs, on the other hand, weigh in at 2–3 pounds, and are 3–4” tall.

Their proportions make capybaras 60 times more massive than their closest relatives, rock cavies (Kerodon sp.) and 2,000 times more massive than the common mouse (Mus musculus). This tremendous size difference is why Herrera-Álvarez et al. took a closer look at the capybara, studying its propensity to develop cancer and other tradeoffs that would seem to coincide with its exceptional size.

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What We Know About the 2019 Novel Coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2

David Goodsell image of SARS-2-CoV
Image by David Goodsell

The 2019 Novel Coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) is a new virus that emerged in China in late 2019 and quickly jumped into scientific and mainstream news. When facing a potential pandemic, it can be difficult to share information without inducing panic. There’s no doubt that SARS-CoV-2 presents a significant threat to public health, but as with all viruses in their emerging stages, we often find ourselves with more questions than answers. However, through the work of the World Health Organization (WHO), government officials and hardworking scientists worldwide, we can begin to understand some of the details about SARS-CoV-2.

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The Art of Being a Field Scientist

Today’s article is written by guest blogger Vince Debes, this year’s winner of the Promega Art Contest for Creative Scientists. He will be starting a Master of Science program in Geological Sciences in the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University this fall.

Grand Tetons at night

It’s incredible how seemingly insignificant actions can lead to major events years down the road. When my partner and I were testing out our new camera shutter remotes in the Grand Tetons on the way to do field work in Yellowstone, I never imagined an image we captured would lead to a grand prize in the Promega Art Contest for Creative Scientists. The four-minute-long exposure was taken at midnight with a full moon and shows the ghostly, almost imperceptible, movements of Colter Bay marina vessels against a backdrop of trailing stars and the stolid Tetons.

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Building a Collaborative Research Network to Address a Rare Disease

Early June 2016

Chris had extreme leg pain off and on for about a month. Pain that came and went, creeping in slowly but sometimes with extreme intensity. Based on x-rays an orthopedist diagnosed a torn hamstring that was on the mend. We were sent home to rest and ice his muscles.

One Sunday Chris played in the pool for 5 hours straight and didn’t wince once. The following week he was fine so he went to soccer practice on Wednesday and swim team practice the next day. At 11:30 that night he woke up screaming in pain. Same leg. Same spot. Back again.

Late June 2016

We were on vacation in Greece. The pain started again, severe and intense and scary, so bad he couldn’t sleep lying down in a bed.  Desperate, we ended up in a Greek hospital… the local pediatrician was wonderful and recommended we fly home and see an orthopedic doctor as soon as possible…a terrifying flight home: No answers and a pit in our stomachs. Chris was in a wheelchair.

July 2016

We finally got the orthopedist to order the MRI. The MRI results were what every parent fears: “leukemia or lymphoma” and a referral to an oncologist.  After many invasive tests, the oncologist said it was probably not cancer.  We felt such relief, but we were left with no answers for all his pain. We moved on to infectious disease.

August 2016

The infectious disease specialist said they could not culture anything so they didn’t believe that Chris had an infection. Again, incomplete answers.  We were then passed off to rheumatology.  The frustration of not having any answers and our child still in pain was heart-breaking, isolating, and terrifying.

Based on the bone biopsy and MRIs the rheumatologists finally gave Chris a diagnosis: Chronic Recurrent Multifocal Osteomyelitis (CRMO often pronounced “chromo” for short).

The good news: it was not cancer; the bad news: very little is known about CRMO because it is a rare disease.

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A Quick Guide To Finding That Next Step After A Post-Doc

On February 13, 2020, a group of post-docs from the University of Wisconsin – Madison had the opportunity to spend a day at the Promega headquarters in Fitchburg, WI. Throughout the day, the group heard from a list of speakers including Tom Livelli, VP of Life Sciences, and representatives from Technical Services, Sales, R&D and Marketing. The day concluded with a tour of the Feynman Manufacturing Center, where attendees saw production and packing lines, as well as training and QC labs.

Promega employees and UW Post-Docs having lunch

On February 13, 2020, a group of post-docs from the University of Wisconsin – Madison had the opportunity to spend a day at the Promega headquarters in Fitchburg, WI. Throughout the day, the group heard from a list of speakers including Tom Livelli, VP of Life Sciences, and representatives from Technical Services, Sales, R&D and Marketing. The day concluded with a tour of the Feynman Manufacturing Center, where attendees saw production and packing lines, as well as training and QC labs.

“It’s always encouraging as a scientist to hear about how each person is different and how they’ve had different twists and turns,” says Alexa Heaton, a post-doc studying immunotherapy interactions in mice. “It’s great to hear from such a range of people and the different job types I could consider.”

To recap the day, we’ve captured a few of the biggest takeaways below.

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Rapid Test to Detect SARS-2-CoV Developed in Brazil

The Virology lab at the Universidade Federal da Bahia (UFBA), led by Dr. Gúbio Soares, has developed a fast and specific real-time PCR assay using GoTaq 1-Step RT-qPCR for detection of SARS-2-CoV (the coronavirus previously named 2019-nCoV), which causes the respiratory disease COVID-19. The Maxwell RSC instrument is used for automated extraction of RNA from oral-pharyngeal secretion collected by swab or bronchial wash prior to the assay. This coronavirus-specific assay can shorten the time to identify SARS-2-CoV from 48 hours to 3 hours (1), providing critical information to public health officials in a timely fashion.

“Promega has been providing all our reagents for standard and real-time PCR and also for nucleic acid extraction. It’s a company I can rely on the relationship; they are our partners and have provided excellent support both technically and financially. Promega is the base of all our assays.” Dr. Gúbio Soares.  

Dr. Soares’ laboratory has experience developing assays to identify and detect emerging viral pathogens. Their laboratory first identified the Zika virus as the etiologic agent in the large outbreaks of acute exanthematous illness (AEI) in northeast Brazil in April 2015 (2). Zika was eventually declared a public health emergency of international importance by the World Health Organization in February 2016, after increased incidence of microcephaly was detected in the infants of women infected during pregnancy. Many of the lessons learned in the management of the Zika crisis are informing how scientists are addressing SARS-2-CoV. The Zika response was characterized by a collaborative spirit to share data, samples and resources among scientific labs across the globe.

Below is a video link from Brazil (audio in Portuguese) describing Dr. Soares’ group work on SARS-2-CoV. https://globoplay.globo.com/v/8302334/

Sources Cited

  1. TV Bahia (2020) Test developed at UFBA can identify coronavirus in 3 hours, says researcher. [Internet: https://g1.globo.com/ba/bahia/noticia/2020/02/07/teste-desenvolvido-na-ufba-pode-identificar-coronavirus-em-3h-diz-pesquisador.ghtml Accessed: February 19, 2020]
  2. Sandler, N. (2016) Zika: Personal Perspectives, Global Responses Promega Corporation. [Internet: https://www.promega.com/Resources/PubHub/Inspiration/Zika%20Perspectives%20Responses/ Accessed : February 19, 2020]

Related Posts

From Forensic Analysis to Taco Thursday: My Experience as a Promega Intern

Today’s blog is written by guest blogger, Kali Denis, an intern in our scientific applications group. You’ll find her bio at the end of the article.

A few months ago, I stood in front of my freezer at home, holding a bag with a tube full of gum that I chewed. The freezer was overflowing, as we had just done our weekly grocery shopping, so I ended up stuffing the bag next to some frozen fish sticks. I wondered how long it would take for one of my roommates to question just exactly what this gross-looking bag was doing in our freezer. I doubt they would have ever guessed that it was for a project at my internship!

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Researching the Researcher: Abbeah Navasca, 2019 Real-Time PCR Grant Winner

The three winners of the 2019 Real-Time PCR Grants have been hard at work in the six months since receiving their grants. Each winner was eligible to receive up to $10,000 in free PCR reagents as well as the opportunity to collaborate with our knowledgeable technical service and training teams.

Abbeah Navasca is a plant pathology researcher with the Tagum Agricultural Development Company, Inc. (TADECO*, Philippines). She is developing treatments for viral infections that affect one of Philippines’ largest and most valuable agricultural exports: bananas. As a result of the qPCR grant, she and two of her colleagues were able to participate in sample preparation and analysis workshops with Promega Technical Services experts in Singapore. During her visit, the team worked through strategies for plant sample preparation and amplified those samples with the GoTaq® 1-Step RT-qPCR System. We had a chance to ask her more before she headed back to her lab.

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Tidying Up With Promega R&D: Spectrometer From Space?

Later this year, Promega will open a new R&D building with more than twice the current amount of lab space available on the Madison campus. While preparing to move to the new building, R&D scientists are cleaning out decades of scientific history housed in some of the older labs. Meagan Eggers, Promega Strategic Information Partner, is collaborating with the research groups to document and preserve noteworthy artifacts unearthed in the Research & Development Center. Over the next few months, we’ll showcase some of the most interesting things we find.

Spectrometer – 1960s-2000

Promega research scientists began investigating bioluminescent proteins in the early 1990s. One of the most important tools in this research was the spectrometer pictured above, which was used to measure the emission spectra of many different organisms. Before it arrived at Promega, however, this spectrometer began in the space program.

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Investigation of Remdesivir as a Possible Treatment for SARS-2-CoV (2019-nCoV)

Remdesivir (RDV or GS-5734) was used in the treatment of the first case of the SARS-CoV-2 (formerly 2019-nCoV ) in the United States (1). RDV is not an approved drug in any country but has been requested by a number of agencies worldwide to help combat the SARS-CoV-2 virus (2). RDV is an adenine nucleotide monophosphate analog demonstrated to inhibit Ebola virus replication (3). RDV is bioactivated to the triphosphate form within cells and acts as an alternative substrate for the replication-necessary RNA dependent RNA polymerase (RdRp). Incorporation of the analog results in early termination of the primer extension product resulting in the inhibition.

 Note the spikes that adorn the outer surface of the virus, which impart the look of a corona surrounding the virion, when viewed electron microscopically. In this view, the protein particles E, S, M, and HE, also located on the outer surface of the particle, have all been labeled as well. A novel coronavirus virus was identified as the cause of an outbreak of respiratory illness first detected in Wuhan, China in 2019.
This illustration, created at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), reveals ultrastructural morphology exhibited by coronaviruses. Photo Credit: Alissa Eckert, MS; Dan Higgins, MAM CDC

Why all the interest in RDV as a treatment for SARS-CoV-2 ? Much of the interest in RDV is due to a series of studies performed by collaborating groups at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill (Ralph S. Baric’s lab) and Vanderbilit University Medical Center (Mark R. Denison’s lab) in collaboration with Gilead Sciences. 

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