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 Context:
What’s the News: Researchers have grown neurons from the cells of people with schizophrenia, in a study published online yesterday in Nature, the first time a complex mental illness has been modeled with living cells in a lab. This approach provides a new way to probe the little-understood biological processes underlying the disease and to test potential drug treatments. In preliminary experiments, the researchers found that the neurons weren’t as interconnected as healthy neurons are, and that individual patients’ neurons differ in their reaction to various drugs used to treat schizophrenia.
Researchers traced word rules across more than 3,000 languages.
What’s the News: Noam Chomsky, look out: If language has any universal grammar, it’s hiding really well, conclude the authors of a recent Nature study. The idea that all human languages share some underlying structure, regardless of where or when they evolved, an influential idea that nonetheless has drawn some controversy since Chomsky popularized it in the 1950s. One part of natural-grammar theory is the idea that certain word order rules (whether the verb or the noun goes first and whether a preposition goes before or after a noun, for example) will always associate together, regardless of which language they occur in.
But when cognitive scientists and a biologist teamed up to see whether there were shared patterns in word order across four large language families, they found almost none. A common cultural background, they found, was the best predictor for how a language orders words.
What’s the News: Test-tube evolution just went viral: a new study shows how to use viruses’ knack for natural selection to create tailored proteins. Researchers at Harvard say their new technique is a hundred times faster than the usual methods, churning through 200 generations of proteins in 8 days, and, crucially, requires no attention from researchers after it’s set up: a crock pot for evolution. Though a godsend primarily for researchers, in the future it could accelerate the growth of customized proteins for new drugs.
Scientists have harnessed the power of viruses in a method for evolving customized proteins.
What’s the News: Neuroscientists have found a preliminary answer to a question that has puzzled philosophers for centuries: If someone who has always been blind is one day able to see, can they recognize by sight objects they already know by touch? In a new study published online by Nature Neuroscience, patients who had been blind since birth underwent sight-restoring surgeries as children or adolescent. In the day or two following surgery, patients seemed unable to match what they felt with their hands with what they saw, the researchers found, but a week later, they could.
This results suggests that the brain doesn’t have the innate ability (or maybe has limited innate ability) to tie input from different senses to the same concept—but that it can learn, and pretty fast. Just how fast, the researchers wrote, suggests that the neuronal machinery needed to bring together visual and tactile information may already be there; it just has to be started up.
The stem cells formed a sac that then folded in half
a couple days later (see image above, courtesy of Nature),
forming the optic cup.
What’s the News: Give a blob of cells the right environment—lots of nutrients, special chemical signals, and a comfy gel cushion—and they just might grow you a body part. In a feat of bioengineering, scientists at the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology in Japan have grown a retina from mouse embryonic stem cells. Remarkably, much of the development happened spontaneously, indicating that even undifferentiated cells have a blueprint in mind. Researchers hope the work will someday yield transplantable retinas for people with diseases like retinitis pigmentosa.
“When I received the manuscript, I was stunned, I really was,” commented human molecular geneticist Robin Ali (via Nature News). “I never though I’d see the day where you have recapitulation of development in a dish.”