Science News: Week of July 12, 2009

Our weekly compilation of science news for the week of July 12, 2009.

Active genes discovered in the developing mammal brain: New information about the genes involved in a mammal’s early brain development, including those that contribute to neurological disorders such as autism and mental retardation, has been discovered in a research study led by Penn State biologists. The study is the first to use high-throughput sequencing to uncover active genes in developing brains, and it may be the best evidence yet for the activity in the brain of a large number of genes.

Arizona researchers to sequence West African rice strain: A $1.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation will allow University of Arizona researchers to unlock the genetic code of West African cultivated rice.

Ben-Gurion University researchers identify how stressed fat tissue malfunctions: Fat tissue dysfunction is caused by obesity-induced fat tissue stress: Cells over-grow as they store fat which may cause decreased oxygen delivery into the tissue; individual cells may die (at least in mouse models), and fat tissue inflammation ensues. The BGU teams collected fat tissue samples from people undergoing abdominal surgery and identified a signaling pathway that is operational in intra-abdominal fat, the fat depot that is most strongly tied to obesity-related morbidity.

To read the study:

Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, 94 (7), 2507-2515 DOI: 10.1210/jc.2009-0002

British girl’s heart heals itself after transplant: British doctors designed a radical solution to save a girl with major heart problems in 1995: they implanted a donor heart directly onto her own failing heart.

To read the study:

Tsang, V., Yacoub, M., Sridharan, S., Burch, M., Radley-Smith, R., Khaghani, A., Savoldo, B., & Amrolia, P. (2009). Late donor cardiectomy after paediatric heterotopic cardiac transplantation The Lancet DOI: 10.1016/S0140-6736(09)61201-0

Building memories with actin: Memories aren’t made of actin filaments. But their assembly is crucial for long-term potentiation (LTP), an increase in synapse sensitivity that researchers think helps to lay down memories. Rex et al. reveal that LTP’s actin reorganization occurs in two stages that are controlled by different pathways, a discovery that helps explain why it is easy to encode new memories but hard to hold onto them.

To read the study:

Rex, C., Chen, L., Sharma, A., Liu, J., Babayan, A., Gall, C., & Lynch, G. (2009). Different Rho GTPase-dependent signaling pathways initiate sequential steps in the consolidation of long-term potentiation The Journal of Cell Biology, 186 (1), 85-97 DOI: 10.1083/jcb.200901084

Erosion, on the down low: For the first time, scientists have observed how the tiny fungi that live on plant roots begin to break down rocks. The researchers watched fungi disrupt the crystal structure of a common mineral in rocks, physically eroding the rock and also setting the stage for chemical breakdown.

To read the study:

Bonneville, S., Smits, M., Brown, A., Harrington, J., Leake, J., Brydson, R., & Benning, L. (2009). Plant-driven fungal weathering: Early stages of mineral alteration at the nanometer scale Geology, 37 (7), 615-618 DOI: 10.1130/G25699A.1

Exxon to invest millions to make fuel from Algae: The program is a joint venture with a biotech company founded by the genomics pioneer J. Craig Venter.

Help for chronic hair pullers?: An antioxidant supplement could prove helpful for people with a rare hair-pulling disorder.

New method may accelerate drug discovery for difficult diseases like Parkinson’s: Whitehead Institute scientists have developed a rapid, inexpensive drug-screening method that could be used to target diseases that until now have stymied drug developers, such as Parkinson’s disease. This technique uses baker’s yeast to synthesize and screen the molecules, cutting target discovery and preliminary testing time to a matter of weeks. Traditional methods of high-throughput screening are time-consuming and inefficient, and can often fail for lack of a traditional drug target.

To read the study:

Nature Chemical Biology DOI: 10.1038/nchembio.193

Seven key genes predict brain cancer survival: Scientists have found seven key genes in the type of brain tumor affecting Senator Edward Kennedy that together can predict how aggressive a patient’s cancer will be.

Study explains potential failure of oral contraceptives with obese women: Researchers have identified a potential biological mechanism that could explain why oral contraceptives may be less effective at preventing pregnancy in obese women, as some epidemiological studies have indicated.

To read the study:

Edelman, A., Carlson, N., Cherala, G., Munar, M., Stouffer, R., Cameron, J., Stanczyk, F., & Jensen, J. (2009). Impact of obesity on oral contraceptive pharmacokinetics and hypothalamic–pituitary–ovarian activity? Contraception DOI: 10.1016/j.contraception.2009.04.011

Swine flu shares some features with 1918 pandemic: Exposure to one pandemic may protect against the other.