Bacteria invisible to the naked eye find their way to many of the external surfaces of our bodies, including the naked eye. But the eye isn’t defenseless against this onslaught of microbes—researchers have found that it has special weapons for fighting back.
This fight happens at the surface of the cornea, the eye’s clear outer layer. New research published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation has found that keratin—a type of protein that gives structure to the cornea and other tissues like skin, teeth, hair, and mucous membranes—protects against bacteria. If the eye is like a fishbowl, it’s made of shards used for self-defense. Researchers say the new finding may lead to the creation of new kinds of antibiotics.
Strawberry tongue, a symptom of Kawasaki disease.
Scientists don’t know much about the cause of Kawasaki disease—a disease of blood vessel inflammation most commonly found in Japan—but they do know one thing: Japanese outbreaks are highly correlated with winds from central Asia. When those same winds blow thousands of miles across the Pacific to Hawaii and California, Kawasaki disease ends up there too.
The disease affects generally children under the age of five. Blood vessels through the body become inflamed, leading to rashes, a characteristic “strawberry tongue,” and death in some untreated cases. Japanese pediatrician Tomisaku Kawasaki described the first case in 1960, and incidence of the mysterious disease have been rising ever since.
In the latest issue of Nature, Jennifer Fraser profiles scientists who are looking to the wind for answers about Kawasaki disease. There are a couple examples of windspread fungal spores, just as Aspergillus sydowii that follows dust storms from Africa to the Caribbean, but conditions up high are so extreme that wind had not been seriously considered capable of spreading disease across the Pacific:
What’s the News: Due to a vicious disease, the population of the endangered Tasmanian devil has decreased by at least 70 percent since 1996. The cancer, devil facial tumor disease, spreads when an infected devil bites another, typically during feeding or mating. Because Tasmanian devils are so genetically similar, their bodies don’t recognize the intruding cancer cells as foreign.
But now, researchers have sequenced the genome of two devils and created a genetic test that could help breeders select genetically diverse mates. The test will help conservationists breed future generations of Tasmanian devils that are prepared for the cancer, as well as other types of diseases.
What’s the News: As human societies adopted agriculture, their people became shorter and less healthy, according to a new review of studies focused on the health impacts of early farming. Societies around the world—in Britain and Bahrain, Thailand and Tennessee—experienced this trend regardless of when they started farming or what stapled crops they farmed, the researchers found.
This finding runs contrary to the idea that a stable source of food makes people grow bigger and healthier. The data suggest, in fact, that poor nutrition, increased disease, and other problems that plagued early farming peoples more than their hunter-gatherer predecessors outweighed any benefits from stability.
What’s the News: Please back away from the armadillo, ma’am. You can watch them from a distance, even take pictures, but don’t play with or eat Texas’s state mammal: scientists have just confirmed that it is a source of leprosy infections in humans.
Selfish genes could help destroy mosquitoes’ ability to carry malaria.
What’s the News: Many scientists have played with the idea of creating a genetically modified mosquito that won’t transmit malaria, which kills about 850,000 people a year, and releasing it into the wild. But in the face of the millions of mosquitoes out there that do ferry malaria around, how would the trait spread fast enough to make a difference?
Now, scientists have developed a way to cause a “selfish” gene to spread to more than half of a mosquito population over just a few generations, suggesting a method to quickly and broadly disrupt genes required for carrying malaria.
What’s the News: A gene that makes bacteria resistant to up to 14 antibiotics has been discovered in bacteria in drinking water and street puddles in the Indian capital of New Delhi by a research team from the University of Cardiff in Wales. Scientists were already aware that microbes bearing this gene, which produces an enzyme called NDM-1, were infecting people in India, but it had been thought that such bacteria were mainly picked up in hospitals. This study shows that the gene, which is capable of jumping from species to species, is loose in the environment.
Now that humanity has beaten back and nearly eliminated the once-widespread threat of polio, Bill Gates wants to finish it off for good. To some observers, though, it’s just not worth the money.
The multi-billionaire recently issued his annual letter (pdf) through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, outlining its goals. Gates has been a big donor to world health programs and fighting polio in particular, and his letter calls for eradicating polio once and for all.
There would be many benefits to eradicating the disease entirely, Gates argues — not just medical and financial, but moral. “Success will energize the field of global health by showing that investments in health lead to amazing victories,” he wrote. “The eradication effort illustrates so well how a major advance in the human condition requires resolve and courageous leadership. To win these big important fights, partnerships, money, science, politics and delivery in developing countries have to come together on a global scale.” [Los Angeles Times]
Medical science, supported by billions of philanthropic dollars, has already cut down the specter of polio around the world to a shadow of what it once was. The World Health Organization estimates that there were 1,500 cases of polio around the globe in 2010, down from 350,000 in 1988. To wipe out the last remnants of wild poliovirus, Gates proposes vaccinating youths under five in countries like Afghanistan and India where pockets of polio remain.
Residents of the U.K. who go overseas for surgery have imported a new “superbug.” The bacteria, which is resistant to antibiotics and is even more difficult to treat than infamous infections such as MRSA, has killed two people and seriously sickened 18 others in the past year.
Britain’s Health Protection Agency has declared the infection “a notable public health risk” as the bacteria continues to pop up all over the U.K. In fact, 17 hospitals in Scotland and England have seen the infection, which is in the enterobacteriaceae family. Many of those contracting the superbug, which produces an enzyme that destroys even the most powerful antibiotics, have had cosmetic surgery, liver and kidney transplants in India and Pakistan [Daily Mail].
Scientists have long known that chimpanzees and other nonhuman primates can become infected with simian immunodeficiency virus, or SIV, a variant of HIV. It was thought, however, that only Asian macaque monkeys could die from the infection. But a new study published in Nature contradicts this assumption by finding that the virus can also be deadly to chimpanzees, humans’ closest relatives.
Some wild primates appear to have developed a way to keep SIV from becoming deadly, and scientists had hoped that studying chimpanzees could reveal how this mechanism works, possibly opening to the door to a human remedy. The new results suggest that it will not be possible to find the key to HIV immunity in the chimpanzee genome, as scientists had hoped. However, the study… sets the stage for researchers to gain insight into how HIV and SIV cause disease in their hosts by studying the responses of different primates to the viruses [Nature News].