As we age, there is an increase in cells that are less effective at performing their functions. These cells are known as Senescent.
There are proteins inside these cells which are responsible for making decisions about the development of cells and tissues. The older we get the more of these decision-making proteins are turned off and so the cells become redundant.
It makes the body more susceptible to disease as it cannot respond as well to environmental stressors.
A team of scientists from Brighton, Exeter and Oxford Universities have been researching the possibility of reducing the aging process by turning the proteins back on.
They have taken a chemical commonly found in some worldwide favourites, red wine and dark chocolate and, applied it to the senescent cells. Soon after applying the treatment the senescent cells began to divide normally and the proteins were turned back on.
This new research could be the first step in enabling people to live to a normal age but with full health for the duration of their life. It would take the pressure off health care systems for the elderly and reduce the effects of age related disease
Bats might not actually communicate with a Scouse accent, or any accent for that matter, but they do have an array of different dialects between colonies, just like we do. However, it’s not the dialects themselves that have scientists excited, it’s how they learn them.
There are 13,000 species of bat worldwide but this week the Eygyptian Fruit Bat has come into the spotlight because of how it learns it’s vocalisations, which could be useful in understanding how humans learn theirs. It has over a thousand vocalisations all of which essentially mean ‘get out of my way’, which is useful when you live in a packed colony of up to 50,000 members- wouldn’t want to be around there at dinner time.
Egyptian fruit bats develop their communication through ‘vocal learning’, which few other mammal groups do but it is known in humans, whales and dolphins (Check out my second blog post ‘Remixing the old with the new: How do Humpback whales learn their song?’ for more info on that!).
Unlike whales and dolphins though, bats are much easier to manipulate in a lab environment which makes them a useful study organism. Scientists from the Tel Aviv University, Israel, have done just this to investigate whether the bat pup’s vocalisations are more heavily influenced by their mothers call or by the collective noises of the colony.
They took 15 pregnant females and divided them into three groups, each were then exposed to recordings of wild bats with manipulated frequencies. At 14 weeks, after the pups were weaned, their mothers were released back into the wild. Once the pups reached 6 months old it was found that the young bats were emulating the pitch of the recordings they had grown up with.
This demonstrates that the colony wins; the effect of the colony as a whole is far greater than that of the vocalisations of the mother. It makes complete sense if you think about it as bats grow up in almost total darkness and have one of the best auditory* senses in the mammalian world, so it’s no wonder they’re influenced by all the sounds around them.
The bat pups have now been released back into the wild and it would be interesting to see whether their new sounds ripple through the rest of the colony or if they now have to adapt their calls to suit the colony’s current dialect
Water Bears, or Tardigrades, are microscopic animals found in almost all habitats in the world. They can survive up to 149 degrees or down to -272 degrees celsius and can go more than 10 years without food!
We all know not to risk it, but have you ever wondered what it would be like to try magic mushrooms? Well, despite they themselves not becoming legal anytime soon, they may hold the key to unlocking the brains of those suffering with mental health problems.
Magic mushrooms, or Shrooms, are well known for their psychedelic properties and ability to generate mind-blowing hallucinations in the consumer. There are over 180 species of these mushrooms and they’ve often been used for over 7000 years in ancient spiritual rituals as well as to medicate a variety of disorders.
These mushrooms, for anyone who isn’t aware, are illegal in most countries however the chemical they produce (Psilocybin) isn’t always. It is this chemical that causes the hallucinogenic effect and puts the user into a dream-like state, somewhere between sleep and consciousness.
Researchers at Imperial College, London, have tested the effects of using the chemical from the Shrooms to treat mental health problems such as depression, particularly in individuals who don’t respond well to the usual treatment methods.
The trial they conducted, whilst small, showed promising effects on depressed individuals. Many found that they ceased to be depressed and all individuals felt their mood change in a positive way.
It turns out that the chemical influences two areas of the brain. It decreased the activity of the area of the brain responsible for fear and anxiety, such that these emotions reduced. Additionally, it stabilised a collection of different brain regions known as the ‘Default – mode network’.
Both of these effects contributed to breaking the cycles of depression and many of the participants felt as though they had been ‘rebooted’ and given a new lease of life.
Robin Carhart–Harris, a researcher in this study, explained that the brain was essentially clamped – like a crashed computer – and the chemical acted like a factory reset for it; causing the individual to feel more upbeat.
Whilst, self-medicating with magic mushrooms is a big no, the brains of those suffering with mental health problems could soon be rebooted. Hopefully these small fungi’s can aid scientists in solving the problem of mental health in the not so distant future.
You may think they’re just a nuisance and in many ways just a little bit gross, however Drosophila, otherwise known as fruit flies, have just bagged themselves a fifth Nobel Prize!
They’ve been the study species at the forefront of science for over a century thanks to their easily mapped DNA and prolific breeding rate. Most recently it has enabled three scientists – Jeffrey C. Hall, Michael Rosbash and Michael W. Young- to win the Nobel prize in Medicine for exposing the inner workings of our biological clocks.
All species have an internal biological clock that syncronises with the earth’s light and dark phases and humans are no different. This internal biological clock is known as the ‘Circadian Rhythm’. It is responsible for regulating a variety of mechanisms in the body such as behaviour, hormone levels, metabolism, body temperature and importantly, when we sleep.
These three Nobel Prize winning scientists have uncovered the mechanisms behind the way the rhythm works and found that it is controlled by our genes. A protein is formed in our body which accumulates during the day and then is degraded at night, ultimately controlling the systems of our body over a 24-hour period.
It has long been known that taking lengthy plane journeys that result in jet-lag disrupt the circadian rhythms and when this happens it takes several days for the body to reset itself. What scientists have now found is that things such as eating and using our phones late at night is having not only the same effects as jet-lag but it’s also having the same effects as mutations in the genes responsible for regulating out biological clock. The results of this include cancer, obesity and cardiovascular disease.
However, it’s not all doom and gloom. This new understanding of how the circadian rhythms work mean that scientists can in future, tailor medical treatments to when’s most effective depending on the biological clock. For example, chemotherapy is more effective at 3am than at other times of day and some drugs may work better at night depending on the regulation of disease specific chemicals in the body.
Maybe next time you’re thinking about having that late-night snack it might be worth getting a good night sleep instead, it could be just what the doctor ordered.
Bioluminescence* has been witnessed in all kingdoms of life, from fungi to plants to bacteria, however the origins of it are not yet well understood. This beautiful phenomenon is best witnessed in the depths of the ocean, at more than 1000m, where no sunlight can be found, meaning the only light to penetrate the complete darkness is that of bioluminescent creatures.
Cephalopods, which are a group of organisms including squid and octopus, can be founding spanning all depths of the earth’s oceans, but many species have chosen to occupy the darkest depths which has led them to develop bioluminescent characteristics.
This somewhat crazy characteristic comes with a multitude of uses. It can enable the organism to become camouflaged in its surroundings, mimic other species to avoid predation and can be used in defence such as to startle another organism.
So, back to the origin of these glow in the dark creatures. A recent study has traced the origin of the gene responsible for bioluminescence in cephalopods to a bacterium known as Vibrio fischeri.
This tiny bacterium lives in a relationship with the cephalopod which is known as ‘symbiotic’. Essentially this means that they live closely together and regularly interact, whether this be in a positive, negative or neutral way for either party involved.
Vibrio fischeri originally had the gene for bioluminescence known as Reflectin. It is thought that the reflectin gene may have become part of the cephalopod through horizontal gene transmission* from the bacteria into an ancient cephalopod.
The reflectin proteins are able to assemble themselves into blocks and then these are grouped together in the cephalopods skin to allow them to rapidly change colour and emit light under a variety of different circumstances.
We may not know the origin of bioluminescence in every creature we see it in, but it seems we now have quite a good idea of how it came about in our tentacled ocean friends and who knows, maybe it’ll help to take us one step closer to being able to glow ourselves some day…
Glossary Bioluminescence* The biochemical emission of light by living organisms Horizontal Gene Transfer* Movement of genetic material from one organism to another, usually between a single celled organism such as a bacterium and a multicellular organism such as a mammal.
Source Origin of the Reflectin Gene and Hierarchical Assembly of Its Protein (Guan et al, 2017).