The Bacteria that are Good for Us

Chains of StreptococciSalmonella. Streptococcus. Shigella. The most well-known bacteria are those that cause disease. Our relationship with them is one of combat. With good reason, we look for ways to avoid encountering them and to eliminate them when we do meet.

But not all bacteria are bad for us. Of course we have known for years that we are colonized by harmless bacteria, but recently, studies on the human microbiome have revealed many surprising things about these bacterial tenants. Studies are showing that the teeming multitudes of organisms living in and on the human body are not just harmless bystanders, but complex, interrelated communities that can have profound effects on our health.

Three studies published last week in Science add more to the growing body of microbiome surprises, showing that certain gut bacteria are not only good for us, but may even be required for the effectiveness of some anti-cancer immunotherapies.

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Seeing Science: Discovering What is Hidden in Plain Sight

Recently, I stumbled upon a few new discoveries that I would have guessed had already been figured out. These discoveries were surprising to me because they fell into the category of “obviously someone else knows this,” even though I didn’t—you know, the stuff you would just do a quick Google search to find out about.

29980708-August-10-blog-Darcia-FINAL-WEBAnyway, it made me reflect on the world we live in, filled with endless information. At times, it seems as if we know it all (at least all the obvious stuff), which can stifle discovery by limiting the sources from which we seek new information. It can appear futile to embark upon research in established fields. But sometimes discoveries occur when you look in familiar places from a new vantage point.

Today’s blog illustrates how seeing science in new ways can lead to this type of unexpected discovery.

Sometimes  seeing science is about how you are looking. 

The first discovery that got my attention was in an article that described the use of drones and Google Earth by archaeologists to discover a monument made of stone hidden below the sand at a World Heritage Site in Petra, Jordan. This is one of the most visited and well-studied archaeological sites in the world. Yet, a huge structure had remained undiscovered despite continual investigation of the site.

I imagine it would be like finding a new room in the house you’ve lived in your entire life. Applying new technology to see science in different ways expands the reach of archaeological discovery. This approach could open the door for remarkable discoveries in other scientific fields. Continue reading

Vitamin D: Power in Cancer Prevention?

This and vitamin D should get your attention.

This and vitamin D should get your attention.

Have you ever noticed that after a good long day outdoors, maybe hiking, at the beach or even working in the yard, you feel really strong and healthy, maybe even more relaxed than after an indoor session in front of the telly or computer? Maybe a February trip to someplace sunny like Mexico or the Canary Islands has given you renewed zest for your normal tasks?

While rest and a change of scenery is never a bad thing, time outdoors and in the sunshine might have gained for you something more than rest and relaxation. If it included a little UVB irradiation, your time outdoors may have increased your serum vitamin D level. And though it’s been presumed for years, we now have proof that higher serum vitamin D3 levels correlate with a decreased incidence of certain cancers. Continue reading

Zika: Another RNA Virus Emerges

no mosquitoZika virus has been in the news recently due to growing concerns about its global spread. If you have never heard of Zika virus before, you are not alone. Although first discovered in the 1940s, Zika has not been the subject of much study as infection is considered rare and the symptoms mild. However, all this has changed in recent months due to the rapid spread of the virus in Latin America, where it has been associated with an increased incidence of microcephaly, a severe birth defect where babies are born with underdeveloped brains. Although the connection of Zika with microcephaly is not yet proven, the circumstantial evidence is strong, leading the World Health Organization to declare the spread of Zika virus an international public health emergency earlier this week. Continue reading

A Toast to the Science of 2013

celebrating science 2013The last weeks have seen the publication of the traditional lists and retrospectives summing up the key events and influential people of 2013—we have the “Person of the Year”, the top news stories of the year, the best songs of the year, and so on. Many of the major science publishers have also compiled their perspectives on the top science news stories of 2013. So what were the most memorable science stories of the year?

Here are a few of the “top ten” listings:

And the Top Life Science Stories Are… (by frequency of list mentions) Continue reading

Hope for an Anti-Malaria Vaccine

anophelesAlthough it is more than 200 years since Jenner’s pioneering work on vaccination, there are still many infectious diseases that resist the development of effective vaccines. Somewhat shockingly, despite years of research effort, there are still no highly effective vaccines against human parasitic diseases. Malaria, the most problematic of these, kills more than half a million people each year—many of these infants and children, qualifying the mosquito that transmits the parasite as one of the most dangerous creatures on earth. Not surprisingly then, recent hopeful news of an anti-malaria vaccine that appears to protect against the disease has been greeted with enthusiasm.

The search for an effective anti-malaria vaccine has been fraught with difficulty due to the complex life cycle of the parasite (Plasmodium falciparum and other Plasmoduim species), compounded by its propensity to change its surface composition and develop resistance to various treatment efforts. The parasite thus presents an ever-changing target for treatment efforts. In the absence of an effective vaccine, anti-malarial efforts have been dependent on drug treatment (also liable to development of resistance), eradication programs, and preventive measures such as insecticide-laced mosquito netting. Continue reading

Basic Biology Matters

crop image2Every scientific paper is the story of a journey from an initial hypothesis to a final conclusion. It may take months or years and consists of many steps taken carefully one at a time. The experiments are repeated, the controls verified, the negative and positive results analyzed until the story finally makes sense. Sometimes the end of the story confirms the hypothesis, sometimes it is a surprise. A paper published last week in Cell describes a study where a team of researchers investigating one problem in basic biology (how one component of a signaling complex works), found an unexpected and potentially significant application in a different field (cancer research).

The paper, published in the June 6 issue of Cell, describes a previously unknown interaction between two cellular proteins—the transcription factor HIF1A and the cyclin-dependent kinase CDK8—in the regulation of genes associated with cellular survival under low-oxygen conditions. An accompanying press release describes how the discovery of a role for CDK8 in this process may have implications for cancer research, as CDK8 may be a potential target for drugs to combat “hypoxic” tumors. Continue reading

Science News for April the First

This year I have the uncommon honor of blogging on April 1st. For those people who do not know, the first day of April is called April Fool’s Day where jokes, practical and otherwise, abound and news headlines may or may not be disingenuous. For example, Google is introducing Google Nose to improve and share olfactory experiences. Can you spot which of the following science news stories were created for the holiday?

The Desinovian genome that was recently sequenced was actually found to be a close relative to that of Neandertals. In fact, the close alignment and identity of the two genome sequences means that these two separate designated ancestors of humans are, in fact, most likely the same species. This means that Neandertals had a wider continental distribution than first thought, indicating a greater likelihood of their genetics becoming part of modern Homo sapiens.

In an interesting role reversal, antibiotic-sensitive bacteria are mounting a reproductive blitz to take back territory ceded to antibiotic-resistant bacteria like methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), New Delhi metallo-β-lactamase-(NDM-1) producing strain of Klebsiella pneumonia and vancomycin-resistant enterococci (VRE). The newest territorial battleground is the human body. One woman recovered after infection with multidrug-resistant MRSA when treatment with ampicillin cleared up the infection in a week.

Bacteria have also taken the headline in a new way: gut microbiota from mice that had slimmed down after gastric bypass surgery were transplanted into obese mice, inducing weight loss without surgery. This research is the just latest in studies looking at how the microbes in the gut influence the entire organism. If this research can be replicated in humans, gastric bypass surgery may lose out to a knifeless solution.

A Cup of Coffee, Hold the Rust

Rust on the underside of a coffee leaf.

Rust on the underside of a coffee leaf. Image used courtesy of Wikipedia.

While at my desk early in the day last week, one headline struck me as particularly troubling: “Coffee Rust Regains Foothold”.

Reports from the Institute of Coffee of Costa Rica estimate that the latest coffee outbreak may cut by 50% the 2013-14 coffee harvest in that country. Coffee specialists in the U.S. are calling it the worst outbreak of rust in Mexico and Central America since rust arrived in the region, 40-some years ago.

And in Kenya, Africa, coffee rust has been described as causing ever-greater problems, even with Kenyan coffee varieties resistant to rust being grown.

Several Central American governments are enacting special legislation to fund projects against spread of the fungus.

It’s early February and in this little corner of the world, times seem tough. We are suddenly (although typically, for southern Wisconsin, USA) getting regular snowfalls: 3” this day, 6” a day later. It adds up to a lot of shoveling.  There is nothing like a fresh snowfall and 30 minutes of shoveling to slow the morning commute. Continue reading

Sonnets in DNA

William ShakespeareFor sixty years now, scientists have studied the role of DNA as a vehicle for the storage and transmission of genetic information from generation to generation. We have marveled at the capacity of DNA to store all the information required to describe a human being using only a 4-letter code, and to pack that information into a space the size of the nucleus of a single cell. A letter published last week in Nature exploits this phenomenal storage capacity of DNA to archive a quite different kind of information. Forget CDs, hard drives and chips, the sum of human knowledge can now be stored in synthetic DNA strands. The Nature letter, authored by scientists from the European Bioinformatics Institute in Cambridge, UK, and Agilent Technologies in California, describes a proof-of-concept experiment where synthetic DNA was used to encode Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, a picture of the Bioinformatics Institute, and the original Crick and Watson paper on the double-helical nature of DNA. Continue reading