A team of scientists from Norwich, UK’s John Innes Centre published research in PLOS Biology that describes how phytoplasmas, parasitic bacteria that wreak havoc on the likes of sugarcane and coconut, take over plants and make them do all sorts of things they otherwise wouldn’t. Flowers become shoots, petals change color, and the plant sends up the telltale “witches’ broom” shoots. As the parasite takes hold, the host becomes incapable of reproducing. Insects descend on these new shoots, transmitting the bacteria to make new zombies. They don’t even have to bite anything. The report points out that for all intents and purposes, the plant is dead, living on bacterial life support.
Having been felled this week by the indescribably nasty Norovirus, I’m grateful for two things: first, that I wasn’t on a cruise ship, and second, that it wasn’t the plague (even though it felt like it at times). When I returned to the internets, a story about scientists bringing back an ancient plague from an old tooth caught my eye.
About 1,500 years ago, something even more gnarly than Norovirus ripped through the Roman Empire — nope, not the Pope, but the Justinian Plague, which struck the region in 541 AD, wiping out about 25% of Emperor Justinian’s constituency. Apparently the Emperor himself got sick, but he managed to get better, probably because his health insurance plan was better than everyone else’s. Historians think that the Justinian plaque was a major contributing factor to the fall of the Roman Empire, as estimates suggest that it might have killed up to 50 million people in Europe, Africa, and Asia. Good times!
Sloths are one of those animals that are so ugly they’re cute, so lazy they’re unstoppable, so slow they’ve sped to the spotlight (those of you who watch Ellen know what I’m talking about). But it turns out that these weird creatures that spend their lives hanging upside down might actually be able to save lives — or, more specifically, their hair might. A new study published in PLOS ONE reveals that the hair of three-toed sloth contains special fungi with incredible immunities to cancer, parasites, and bacteria.
Sloths are pretty hairy beasts, and it turns out that their hair grows in two layers. The outer layer is the one with the medicinal properties, as it’s full of “ubiquitous green alga,” which was previously thought to help the sloth camouflage, but is now thought to promote the growth of helpful bacteria that helps sloths stay healthy, driving down the cost of sloth health insurance. It also provides a home for worms, larvae, and roaches, but hey, those disgusting insects need some tasty bacteria too.
NASA has proven adept at crowdsourcing — it leverages the exuberance and talents of students to build nanosatellites or to participate in lunar plant growth. Now, NASA has other crowdsourcing plans — ones that involve biology rather than cosmology. Josiah Zayner, a NASA synthetic biology fellow, wants to leverage the public to provide greater efficiency when it comes to developing antibiotics.
To that end, Zayner and a neurobiologist colleague have launched The International Laboratory for the Identification of New Drugs, otherwise known as the ILIAD project. Think SETI, except instead of users trying to crunch data about potential alien life at home, they’ll be part of a “Massively Multi-Scientist Open Experiment” in which they tap into their inner mad scientist by examining and testing plant and insect specimens to help identify their antibiotics. Many antibiotics are derived from naturally occurring organisms such as fungi, plants, and herbs, so it’s a perfect way to get citizens involved.
You are what you eat. We all know it’s true to some extent, but if you’re like me, this cliché will always induce an eye-roll. But leave it to science to give credibility to this adage — recent studies indicate that our gut’s microbes directly affect our brains.
UCLA professor Emeran Mayer is currently conducting a study to test the theory that as we grow up, our digestive bacteria may help form our brain structure, which means that gut bacteria would continue to affect our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors throughout adulthood. Mayer is conducting MRI scans on thousands of volunteer subjects, and is comparing their brains to their guts, particularly gastro-intestinal bacteria. He has only analyzed data from 60 of the volunteers, but has already found indications of a connection.
Mayer’s preliminary results indicate that the connections between different regions of subjects’ brains depend on the kind of bacteria most prominent in their guts. Apparently, we all have a particular species of bacteria that rules over our GI processes, and the specific mix of microbes in our bellies affects the development and wiring of our brain circuits. Mayer is quick to point out, though, that that doesn’t mean changes in behavior are necessarily a result of those microbes. Identifying causal connections and teasing out exactly how they work will take additional research, as well as the analysis of data from the rest of the test subjects.
Clearly, 3-D printing has provided a great leap forward in terms of our ability to replicate and construct materials. We can make bacteria cages, miniature replicas of ourselves, dresses, entire rooms, food, and even moon bases, among other things. It seems there’s really nothing we can’t print out these days—including, apparently, alien life.
In 2001, three years after founding Celera Genomics, which focused on new sequencing techniques, scientist J. Craig Venter mapped the human genome. He also sequenced genomes for fruit flies, mice, and rats. In 2003, Venter genetically programmed a synthetic virus. In 2008, he developed synthetic bacteria, but it wasn’t until 2010 that he was able to get the synthetic DNA to self-replicate, thereby creating the first living synthetic organism. Basically, Venter is the daddy of DNA, the genie of genomes. What he does, thinks, and proposes in the field of genomics gets everyone’s attention—especially now.