Tag Archives: Genetics

Crusaders were a diverse bunch, genetic analysis shows

History is riddled with stories about the Crusades — religious wars fought between 1095 and 1291, in which Christian invaders tried to claim the Near East. The Crusaders are often presented as a singular, unitary force, but a new genetic study shows quite the contrary. Crusaders came from many parts of the world and often intermixed with the locals.

A team of researchers analyzed 25 individuals whose remains were found in a burial pit near a Crusader castle near Sidon, Lebanon — warriors who fought and perished in the 1200s. The team conducted genetic analyses of the remains and were able to sequence the DNA of nine Crusaders, revealing that three were Europeans, four were Near Easterners, and two individuals had mixed genetic ancestry.

“We know that Richard the Lionheart went to fight in the Crusades, but we don’t know much about the ordinary soldiers who lived and died there, and these ancient samples give us insights into that,” says senior author Chris Tyler-Smith, a genetics researcher at the Wellcome Sanger Institute.

In a way, the Crusades resembled a mass migration. Armies went there to make war, but they also made love, and many soldiers settled down. History remembers the names of the armies’ leaders, but the vast majority of the footmen remain unknown. This helps to at least show what kinds of people went to fight in these wars.

But things were not rosy during the Crusades. Researchers also discovered an isolated skull in the area, which they believe was used as a projectile — catapulted into the opposition’s camp to destroy morale and spread disease.

Ultimately, however, despite evidence for many crusaders settling down in Lebanon, their genetic infiltration was short-lived.

Dr. Marc Haber, from the Wellcome Sanger Institute, said:

“The Crusaders travelled to the near East and had relationships with the local people, with their sons later joining to fight their cause. However, after the fighting had finished, the mixed generation married into the local population and the genetic traces of the Crusaders were quickly lost.”

The Crusades were a series of religious wars directed by the Latin Church during the medieval period. The most commonly known Crusades are the campaigns in the Eastern Mediterranean aimed at recovering the Holy Land (areas around Israel and Palestine). Officially, these wars were fought to suppress paganism and heresy, though, in practice, the reasons for fighting were numerous, and included political and territorial motivations. The Crusaders had mixed results. The first crusade (1095–1099) was a stellar success, with the Christian soldiers winning battle after battle despite overwhelming odds. The second one, carried some 50 years later, led to the formation of a Crusader state, but ended in a total disaster. The third crusade, led by Richard III, had mixed results. However, the Fourth Crusade ended with the sacking the city of Constantinople (Istanbul), earning the Crusaders an excommunication.

The study has been published in the American Journal of Human Genetics. DOI: 10.1016/j.ajhg.2019.03.015

Woolly mammoths suffered genomic meltdown right before extinction

Dwindling numbers of woolly mammoths brought forth another problem: a “mutational meltdown.” The last surviving members of populations were not much less prepared to deal with harsh conditions than their predecessors, a new study has revealed.

Wooly mammoths near the Somme River, AMNH mural. Image credits: Charles R. Knight, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.

They were once some of the most common herbivores in North America and Siberia. Rising temperatures and an increasing number of predators (read: humans) wiped most of them out about 10,000 years ago. However, as recent studies have shown, small, isolated populations survived on some islands up until 3,700 years ago. when the species went fully extinct. In this study, researchers compared the genomes of these “surviving” mammoths and the ones of their predecessors from the mainland, dating back to 45,000 years ago.

Some mammoths had no olfactory sense. How did they smell? Terribly, likely.

The in-depth comparison showed that the island mammoths had it pretty rough. Because their population was so small, they accumulated multiple harmful mutations to their genome, which interfered with major gene functions. For instance, they had virtually lost their sense of smell, suffered from urinary problems, and had a translucent and satin coat.

“In this island mammoth there is an excess of what look like bad mutations right before the mammoths go extinct,” said Rebekah Rogers, co-author of the study from the University of North Carolina.

Published in the journal PLoS Genetics, the study compared only two woolly mammoths — one lived 45,000 years ago in mainland Siberia in a large population, and the other lived about 4,300 years ago on Russia’s Wrangel Island, among a population of around 300. So they only looked at two beasts, which might not paint the full picture, but definitely gives us a clear indication of what the last mammoths went through, which is pretty amazing if you think about it. Rebekah Rogers adds:

“When I first started this project, I was excited to be working with the new woolly mammoth sequences, published by Love Dalen’s lab. It was even more exciting when we found an excess of what looked like bad mutations in the mammoth from Wrangel Island. There is a long history of theoretical work about how genomes might change in small populations. Here we got a rare chance to look at snapshots of genomes ‘before’ and ‘after’ a population decline in a single species. The results we found were consistent with this theory that had been discussed for decades.”

It’s not like this is surprising in any way. We’ve known for a long time that small, isolated populations go through significant changes. The lack of adequate natural selection combined with inbreeding generally leads to an accumulation of mutations — but the study gives us the chance to see how this happens. Montgomery Wilson Slatkin, who was also involved with the study, is an American biologist, and professor at the University of California, who has dedicated his career to developing mathematical models of how genomes will look different when population conditions change. His work might shed some light on how dwindling populations are affected by this genetic stress — something more and more important as we seem to be causing a major extinction.

Satin fur and heartburn

Unlike most mammoths, island populations may have had silky, satin fur. Image credits: Flying Puffin.

This also fits in with modern genetic research. For instance, researchers have identified an interesting mutation in the island mammoths, one that in mice causes satin fur. If the effects were similar in mammoths (which is a highly plausible assumption), then the isolated population looked better than their mainland cousins… but this wasn’t really a boon for them. Smooth, silky fur is less effective at protecting against the cold and damp weather. Furthermore, satin hair is associated with other problems:

“A lot of satin mutants are known to have digestive problems, and so it may have had heartburn, it may have had trouble digesting its food,” Rogers said.

But these mutations might also hold a few positives within. Matthew Cobb, professor of zoology at the University of Manchester who was not involved in the study, believes that the island population might have quickly adapted to their new environment.

“Assuming that these mammoth smell genes are truly non-functional, this may represent an adaptation to the particular conditions on Wrangel island,” he said. “Olfactory genes evolve very rapidly, and can quickly become non-functional where they no longer serve any function because food sources or predators have changed.”

He too believes the findings can be applied to today’s situation.

“For the mammoths, the end point was extinction; these findings may enable us to develop better conservation strategies for animals that are currently endangered,” he said.

Journal Reference: Rogers RL, Slatkin M (2017) Excess of genomic defects in a woolly mammoth on Wrangel island. PLoS Genet 13(3): e1006601. doi:10.1371/journal.pgen.1006601

The first Americans came from Russia’s frozen expanse, Siberia, some 23,000 years ago

A new study comes to dismiss the popular idea that Native Americans draw their genetic heritage from Polynesians or European peoples.

The first humans to reach the Americas came from Siberia in a single group some 23,000 years ago, at the height of the last Ice Age, says the new study. On their way to Alaska, they hanged around in the northern regions for a few thousands of years before moving deeper into North and South America.

Presumably for that delicious, cave-made maple syrup.

Presumably for that delicious, cave-made maple syrup.

They lived in low-land, shrubby areas for an estimated 10.000 years, but archaeological evidence is hard to come by to help reach a definite number.

This map shows the outlines of modern Siberia (left) and Alaska (right) with dashed lines. The broader area in darker green (now covered by ocean) represents the Bering land bridge near the end of the last glacial maximum, a period that lasted from 28,000 to 18,000 years ago when sea levels were low and ice sheets extended south into what is now the northern part of the lower 48 states. University of Utah anthropologist Dennis O’Rourke argues in the Feb. 28 issue of the journal Science that the ancestors of Native Americans migrated from Asia onto the Bering land bridge or “Beringia” some 25,000 years ago and spent 10,000 years there until they began moving into the Americas 15,000 years ago as the ice sheets melted.
Credit: Wlliam Manley, Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research, University of Colorado.

They settled on a land bridge that connected Eurasia to the Americas, named Beringia. The ice sheets extended south into the Pacific Northwest, Wyoming, Wisconsin and Ohio. Large expanses of Siberia and Beringia were cold but lacked glaciers. As the planet warmed up however, ice melted, sea levels rose the area got slowly flooded, creating what we today know as the Bering Strait. These early settlers were forced to relocate and some of them found their way to America, but their settlements, and any traces of their daily lives were lost under the waters.

The lack of archaeological evidence makes precisely dating these events very tricky, but scientists are confident that genetic sequencing can help us with that:

“There is some uncertainty in the dates of the migration and the divergence between the northern and southern Amerindian populations. But as we get more ancient genomes sequenced, we will be able to put more precise dates on the times of migration,” said one of the study authors Yun Song, associate professor at University of California, Berkeley.

The analysis, using the most comprehensive genetic data set from Native Americans to date, was conducted using three different statistical models. The data consisted of the sequenced genomes of 31 living Native Americans, Siberians and people from around the Pacific Ocean, and the genomes of 23 ancient individuals from North and South America, spanning a time between 200 and 6,000 years ago.

The international team concluded that the northern and southern Native American populations diverged between 11,500 and 14,500 years ago.

The southern branch peopled Central and South America as well as part of northern North America. The findings will be presented in the forthcoming issue of the journal Science.

“The diversification of modern Native Americans appears to have started around 13,000 years ago when the first unique Native American culture appears in the archaeological record: the Clovis culture,” said Rasmus Nielsen, a professor at the California university. “We can date this split so precisely in part because we previously have analysed the 12,600-year-old remains of a boy associated with the Clovis culture,” Nielsen added.

Blue eyes linked to higher levels of alcohol dependence

According to an unusual study conducted by University of Vermont researchers, people with blue eyes may be more likely to become alcoholics – and researchers are trying to figure out why.

Image via Telegraph.

Human eye color is a pretty strange thing – it’s an inherited trait influenced by more than one gene. These genes cause  small changes in the genes themselves and in neighboring genes, and we actually don’t know all the genes responsible for eye color. With ranges from light blue to dark brown, you can tell a lot by a person just by looking at his iris color, perhaps even if he’s more likely to become an alcoholic.

The researchers noticed the link after studying the eye colour of 1,263 European Americans who had been diagnosed with alcohol dependence. They found that on average, people with lighter shades of eye color were more likely to become alcoholics than the ones with brown eyes; individuals with blue eyes actually had the highest rates. Even after correcting for variables such as age, gender and background, the differences still remained.

“This suggests an intriguing possibility – that eye colour can be useful in the clinic for alcohol dependence diagnosis,” one of the lead researchers, Arivis Sulovari, said in a press release.

Of course, the problem here is that correlation doesn’t imply causality – in other words, just because two things happen in common doesn’t mean that one is causing the other – and that’s a major issue. That’s why before jumping to conclusion, researchers want to replicate the results. But even if they do, it still doesn’t imply causality. For that, they need to find a genetic or environmental cause, and they have a hunch it might be genetic.

However, alcoholism is a complex issue.

“These are complex disorders,” said the other lead researcher Dawei Li. The genes we’ve identified over the past two decades “can only explain a small percentage of the genetics part that has been suggested,” he added, “a large number is still missing, is still unknown.”

But even though causality is not established yet, it may still be an important clue.

“Although replication is needed, our findings suggest that eye pigmentation information may be useful in research on AD,” researchers write in their abstract.

Journal Reference: Eye color: A potential indicator of alcohol dependence risk in European Americans. Arvis Sulovari, Henry R. Kranzler, Lindsay A. Farrer, Joel Gelernter and Dawei Li.

Genetically Speaking, You’re More Like Your Dad

You may look more like your mom or more like your dad, but technically, you inherit equal amounts of genetic information from both; however, a new study has shown that you (and all mammals for that matter) are genetically more like their dads. If that sounds a bit confusing… well, it is. Specifically, although we inherit equal amounts of genetic mutations from both our parents, the mutations that make us who we are and not some other person actually ‘use’ more of the DNA that we inherit from our dads.

Image via Pixabay.

The research has significant implications for treating several genetic diseases, but also for research models and some psychological studies. For instance, when conducting research on mice, scientists don’t take into consideration whether specific genetic expression originates from mothers or fathers, which may actually influence the results of the research.

“This is an exceptional new research finding that opens the door to an entirely new area of exploration in human genetics,” said Fernando Pardo-Manuel de Villena, PhD, professor of genetics and senior author of the paper. “We’ve known that there are 95 genes that are subject to this parent-of-origin effect. They’re called imprinted genes, and they can play roles in diseases, depending on whether the genetic mutation came from the father or the mother. Now we’ve found that in addition to them, there are thousands of other genes that have a novel parent-of-origin effect.”

These genetic differences can actually carry a significant impact on many conditions, including type-2 diabetes, heart disease, schizophrenia, obesity, and cancers. Studying them in genetically diverse mouse models that take into consideration the sex of the mutation may lead to an improved understanding of how they affect us.

Gene expression connects the DNA to proteins, which in turn regulate hormones and carry out various crucial functions inside our cells. Any mutation can have huge impacts on health.

“This type of genetic variation is probably the most important contributor — not to simple Mendelian diseases where there’s just one gene mutation [such as cystic fibrosis] — but to much more common and complex diseases, such as diabetes, heart disease, neurological conditions, and a host of others,” Pardo-Manuel de Villena said. “These diseases are driven by gene expression, not of one gene but of hundreds or thousands of genes.

The fact that this impact can be carried across hundreds of genes and in turn, regulate countless proteins adds a new degree of complexity to animal-model studies. For now, it’s not clear if not taking this into consideration may have actually affected the results of previous studies.

“This expression level is dependent on the mother or the father,” Pardo-Manuel de Villena said. “We now know that mammals express more genetic variance from the father. So imagine that a certain kind of mutation is bad. If inherited from the mother, the gene wouldn’t be expressed as much as it would be if it were inherited from the father. So, the same bad mutation would have different consequences in disease if it were inherited from the mother or from the father.”

Journal Reference:

  1. James J Crowley, et al. Analyses of allele-specific gene expression in highly divergent mouse crosses identifies pervasive allelic imbalance. Nature Genetics, 2015; DOI: 10.1038/ng.3222

Scientists find how lizards regenerate their tails

It’s one of the most remarkable adaptations in the animal world – growing a tail or a limb. Some lizards do it, salamanders do it, and by learning how they do it, we may soon be able to do it as well; with technology, that is.

The green anole lizard (Anolis carolinensis) can lose and then regrow its tail, using cartilage and fat to replace the bone.

A team of researchers have discovered the genetic “recipe” for lizard tail regeneration which, at the very basic level, comes down to the right combination and quantity of genes. To make things even more interesting, we humans have the same genes used in tail regrowth, so the study has a lot of potential.

“Lizards basically share the same toolbox of genes as humans,” said lead author Kenro Kusumi, professor in ASU’s (Arizona State University) School of Life Sciences and associate dean in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “Lizards are the most closely-related animals to humans that can regenerate entire appendages. We discovered that they turn on at least 326 genes in specific regions of the regenerating tail, including genes involved in embryonic development, response to hormonal signals and wound healing.”

The interdisciplinary team studied how the green anole lizard, Anolis carolinensis, can lose its tail when attacked by a predator and then regrow it back. They used next-generation molecular and computer analysis tools to examine the genes turned on in tail regeneration. They found that lizards have quite an unique lengthy pattern of tail regeneration, different to what salamanders do, for example.

“Regeneration is not an instant process,” said Elizabeth Hutchins, a graduate student in ASU’s molecular and cellular biology program and co-author of the paper. “In fact, it takes lizards more than 60 days to regenerate a functional tail. Lizards form a complex regenerating structure with cells growing into tissues at a number of sites along the tail.”

Lizards don’t regenerate the bone in the tail – instead, the bone is replaced by cartilage and fat, losing some of its flexibility and power. But if this growing technique were to be applied in humans, substitutes could be used. The key here was identifying the genetic pathway that enables regeneration – and that’s exactly what scientists did.

“We have identified one type of cell that is important for tissue regeneration,” said Jeanne Wilson-Rawls, co-author and associate professor with ASU’s School of Life Sciences. “Just like in mice and humans, lizards have satellite cells that can grow and develop into skeletal muscle and other tissues.”

“Using next-generation technologies to sequence all the genes expressed during regeneration, we have unlocked the mystery of what genes are needed to regrow the lizard tail,” said Kusumi. “By following the genetic recipe for regeneration that is found in lizards, and then harnessing those same genes in human cells, it may be possible to regrow new cartilage, muscle or even spinal cord in the future.”

The team hopes their findings will one day be applied to medical situations such as spinal cord injuries, birth defects or arthritis.

Source: Arizona State University.

 

Mammals Can ‘Choose’ Sex of Offspring, Study Finds

An extremely challenging study published by a team of researchers from the Stanford School of Medicine claims that through some unknown mechanism mammals can bias  the sex of their offspring in order to win the genetic lottery and produce extra grandchildren.

The holy graal of modern evolutionary biology

fertilizationAfter analyzing 90 years of breeding records from the San Diego Zoo, the researchers were able to prove (or at least give a strong indication of) one of the most debated theories in evolutionary biology – mammals rely on some unknown physiologic mechanism to manipulate the sex ratios of their offspring, as part of a subtle, but highly adaptive evolutionary strategy.

“This is one of the holy grails of modern evolutionary biology — finding the data which definitively show that when females choose the sex of their offspring, they are doing so strategically to produce more grandchildren,” said Joseph Garner, PhD, associate professor of comparative medicine and senior author of the study, published July 10 in PLOS ONE. The results applied across 198 different species.

Female power… for the sons!

In order to reach this conclusion, the team assembled three-generation pedigrees of more than 2,300 animals and found that grandmothers and grandfathers were able to strategically influence the sex of their offspring, choosing to give birth to sons if this seems more likely to reward them with more high quality offspring. The process is thought to be largely controlled by females.

“You can think of this as being girl power at work in the animal kingdom,” he said. “We like to think of reproduction as being all about the males competing for females, with females dutifully picking the winner. But in reality females have much more invested than males, and they are making highly strategic decisions about their reproduction based on the environment, their condition and the quality of their mate. Amazingly, the female is somehow picking the sperm that will produce the sex that will serve her interests the most: The sperm are really just pawns in a game that plays out over generations.”

The study builds on a theory initially proposed in 1973 by scientists Robert Trivers and Dan Willard, founders of the field of evolutionary sociobiology. They challenged the traditional belief, that the sex of mammal offspring is random, claiming that the odds arent 50-50, but rather hypothesized that mammals are selfish creatures with a significant control over their body. Thus, parents in very good conditions, more healthy and better adapted will often choose to produce sons whose inherited strength and bulk could help them better compete in the mating market – giving them a significant avantage in the “race for grandchildren”.

New Sumatran Tigers

“This paper was a huge leap forward, providing the first suggestion that the idea might work in mammals,” Garner said. “But because it relied on data from only two generations, it couldn’t show whether females that produced more sons also gained more grandchildren from those sons.” In fact, this key prediction of the hypothesis has remained untested, because complete three-generation pedigrees are so hard to obtain in the wild, Garner said.

Daughters and sons

The researchers ended up with a pool of 1,627 granddams (female grandparents) and 703 grandsires (male grandparents) for whom they did a complete report that went back 3 generations. They analyzed all major mammal groups: big carnivores, primates, cloven-hoofed and odd-toed grazing animals. They results showed that when females produced mostly sons, those sons had 2.7 times more children per capita than those whose mothers bore equal numbers of male and female offspring. This raises some pretty interesting questions.

“The question is, within each species, among females who had more sons, did those sons do better in terms of producing more grandchildren per capita? And the answer is yes,” Garner said. “Females are choosing and being very Machiavellian about it. They’re doing it for their own benefit.”

The same was true for grandsires, though it’s unlikely that they can control this process.

“A grandfather producing more male offspring also has more success. But that could be entirely determined by the female,” as she may be deciding the sex ratio to produce based on the quality of the male, Garner said.

Apparently – mating and ensuring offspring are like gambling, and sons are the “high risk, high reward” bet, while daughters are safety.

“I’m gambling on how many grandchildren I’m going to produce. If I’m producing nothing but daughters, I’m making a safe bet — I’m going to make the average.”

“Think about lions,” Garner said. “Most male lions don’t reproduce. There may be 10 or 15 females but only one male that fathers everybody. The same is true with baboons. There is one alpha male. If you are the parent of that harem-holding male, then you have hit the genetic jackpot because he might produce tens or hundreds of offspring. If you have a bachelor male, who never produces offspring, he produces zero. So males are a high-risk, high-payoff bet. Who would take the bet unless they knew they could rig it?”

But how is it that mammals control this? The honest answer is – we don’t know. The only half decent theory is that females can somehow detect ‘male’ and ‘female’ sperm due to their different shapes and decide on which they ‘let pass’. But how they control this remains a total mystery.

As for any possiility of this happening, it’s already suggested that humans likely adapt their offspring sex-ratio in response to social cues.

Scientific article

Origin of the Romani people finally pinned down

Europe’s largest minority group, the Romani people have migrated from northwestern India, a new genetic study shows.

The Romani, also known as the Roma, or Romi (depending on the language) have been originally called “gypsies” in the 16th century, because of their widely spread origin and because they were thought to come from Egypt. However, today, the term “gypsy” is considered to be derogatory, and especially in Europe, it’s a term you may want to avoid.

There are over 11 million Romani in Europe, but their history has been pretty much neglected, said study researcher David Comas of the Institut de Biologia Evolutiva at Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Spain, leader of the study. He had a hunch that the Romani came from India and not Egypt; in order to test his theory, he used a technique that compares DNA segments from across the whole genome with that of other populations. They analyzed 13 different groups of Romani from across Europe.

“In our study, we do not focus on specific regions of the genome, but on the genome as a whole, which provides us the complete genetic information of the populations under study,” he explained.

The results indicated that Romani’s ancestors migrated out of northwest India all at one time 1,500 years ago; after they arrived in Europe, they first spread all across the Balkan areas 900 years ago. Their history after that however, becomes quite intricate. Some have maintained their semi-migratory lifestyle even to this day, some have mixed in with local communities. They have been discriminated against – especially during the Holocaust, when somewhere between 200,000 and 1.5 million Romani were killed by the Nazis.

Comas explained he will conduct more analysis to include more Romani groups and better pinpoint their Indian point of origin.

Controversial study claims humans are slowly losing their intellectual abilities

According to a new study conducted by Professor Gerald Crabtree, who heads a genetics laboratory at Stanford University in California, humans have peaked their intellectual capacities thousands of years ago, and now we are in a slow, but certain, state of decline.

The provocative theory comes from one of the leading minds in genetics, and it relies on the fact that human intelligence, in order to function at its finest, needs optimal functioning of a large number of genes, which in turn requires enormous evolutionary pressures to maintain. Since there are no such major pressures at the moment (and haven’t been, for millennia), we cannot function to the best of our capacities.

“The development of our intellectual abilities and the optimization of thousands of intelligence genes probably occurred in relatively non-verbal, dispersed groups of peoples before our ancestors emerged from Africa,” says the papers’ author, Dr. Gerald Crabtree, of Stanford University. In this environment, intelligence was critical for survival, and there was almost certainly an immense selective pressure focused around intelligent folk.

Basically, it boils down to this: for over 99 percent of our Homo Sapiens history, we have survived as hunter-gatherer societies, relying greatly on our wits, developing into bigger and bigger brained creatures. However, that process has stopped the moment we established ourselves as the dominant species on the planet, natural selection on our intellect practically halting.

“I would wager that if an average citizen from Athens of 1000BC were to appear suddenly among us, he or she would be among the brightest and most intellectually alive of our colleagues and companions, with a good memory, a broad range of ideas and a clear-sighted view of important issues,” Professor Crabtree says in a provocative paper published in the journal Trends in Genetics.

But it’s not all about intelligence – he believes they would be emotionally superior to us as well.

“Furthermore, I would guess that he or she would be among the most emotionally stable of our friends and colleagues. I would also make this wager for the ancient inhabitants of Africa, Asia, India or the Americas, of perhaps 2,000 to 6,000 years ago,” Professor Crabtree says. “The basis for my wager comes from new developments in genetics, anthropology, and neurobiology that make a clear prediction that our intellectual and emotional abilities are genetically surprisingly fragile,” he says.

So what about now? Is there no intellectual selection for humans nowadays? There is, but it is nowhere near as fierce as it was in ancient times.

“A hunter-gatherer who did not correctly conceive a solution to providing food or shelter probably died, along with his or her progeny, whereas a modern Wall Street executive that made a similar conceptual mistake would receive a substantial bonus and be a more attractive mate,” Professor Crabtree says.

However, the study was met with skepticism, to say the least. Some researchers dispatched the study as amateurish, while some just labeled it as speculation.

“At first sight this is a classic case of Arts Faculty science. Never mind the hypothesis, give me the data, and there aren’t any,” said Professor Steve Jones, a geneticist at University College London. “I could just as well argue that mutations have reduced our aggression, our depression and our penis length but no journal would publish that. Why do they publish this?” Professor Jones said.

Indeed, while the study scores heavy points in terms of circumstantial evidence and creativity, it doesn’t score where it matters the most: hard data.

“I am an advocate of Gradgrind science – facts, facts and more facts; but we need ideas too, and this is an ideas paper although I have no idea how the idea could be tested,” he said.

So what do you think about it? Have we in fact regressed to the point where we become couch potatoes, unable to fend for ourselves, declining generation after generation? Are we in fact much superior to the ancient man? Or is the truth totally different?

Lab uses skin cells to help repair heart muscle

Another breakthrough in biology and medicine was reported, as scientists were able, for the first time, to take skin cells from patients who had suffered heart failure and make them repair the cardiac muscle.

The technique had been tested only on rats and it seemed decades could pass until it would become suitable for humans, but in lack of anything better, doctors applied it, and it worked out remarkably fine, marking the beginning of a new era in the quest for replacement cells to treat tissue affected by disease, Israeli researchers declared.

Image source

The research relies on a technique called human-induced pluripotent stem cells, or hiPSCs, a recently-discovered source which can be a good replacement for the much more controversial stem cells technique. Basically what you do is take cells from the patient and inject new genes into their nucleus, along with a ‘chemical cocktail’. Basically, these new elements reprogram the cells to their youthful stage, and teach them to do other things as well. The major advantage here is that if the body sees its own cells, it will recognize them as friendly cells and the immune system will not attack.

The bad thing is that so far, studies have only shown hiPSCs from younger (under 60 years) and healthy people who are able to adapt to this new situation and transform their cells. So far, this doesn’t seem to work out for elderly and diseased patients. But scientists are confident in this technique, and believe it can be used in many more exciting cases.

“What is new and exciting about our research is that we have shown that it’s possible to take skin cells from an elderly patient with advanced heart failure and end up with his own beating cells in a laboratory dish that are healthy and young,” said Lior Gepstein, a professor of cardiology at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology and Rambam Medical Center in Haifa, Israel.

Basically, it is the equivalent to the stage of his heart cells when he was just born.

Human Embryonic Stem Cell Lines Created Without The Destruction Of Embryos

stem cells
The ethical and moral aspects of using stem cells have been discussed a lot and it seems there is no good answer; genetic practically has no limit and since the discovery of DNA things have evolved very quickly. But the thing is that the moral aspects concerning it could be left unsolved and yet everybody could be happy. How?

Well what if we could use stem cells without causing vital damage to the embryos? That would pretty much solve things; and we are not so far away from that. Advanced Cell Technology, Inc. together with colleagues announced the development of five human embryonic stem cell (hESC) lines without the destruction of embryos.

In fact, the NIH report to the President refers to this technology as one of the viable alternatives to the destruction of embryos. The method was published January 11 in the journal Cell Stem Cells, published by Cell Press. What they did is that they removed single cells from the embryo using a technique similar to preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD). The biopsied embryos continued to develop normally and were then frozen. After that the cells which were removed were cultured utilizing a special method which recreates the optimal developmental environment and it has a substantially improved efficiency of deriving stem cells to rates comparable to using the traditional approach of deriving stem cells from the inner cell mass of a whole blastocyst stage embryo.

“This is a working technology that exists here and now,” said Robert Lanza, M.D., Chief Scientific Officer at Advanced Cell Technology and senior author of the paper. “It could be used to increase the number of stem cell lines available to federal researchers immediately. We could send these cells out to researchers tomorrow. If the White House approves this new methodology, researchers could effectively double or triple the number of stem cell lines available within a few months. Too many needless deaths continue to occur while this research is being held up. I hope the President will act now and approve these stem cell lines quickly.”

The results sound promising but it is hard to say how things are going to turn out. We will wait and see.