Friday, 13 May 2011

This Week in Science! (May 13, 2011)

This week has seen the publication of quite a few interesting research articles. Here is a list of some that have piqued my interest:
  • New Lizard Species Created in Lab – Many species of lizards in the genus Aspidoscelis have an interesting life history. There are a dozen species of Aspidoscelis that live in New Mexico, and about half of these species reproduce by way of parthenogenesis. Among those parthenogenic species, some have triploid genomes (that is, they have three complete sets of chromosomes), while others are diploid (two sets of chromosomes). A team of researchers lead by Peter Baumann, however, has created a new species of Aspidoscelis – one that is tetraploid. Their paper, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, details how they crossed females of the species Aspidoscelis exsanguis – a parthenogenic triploid species – with sexually-reproducing diploid Aspidoscelis inornata males. The matings resulted in hybrid daughters that, upon karyotyping, were found to be tetraploid. These offspring went on to reproduce asexually, giving birth to daughters that were also tetraploid. This continued for multiple generations, effectively establishing multiple lineages of a brand new species!
    (Baumann et al. "Laboratory synthesis of an independently reproducing vertebrate species". Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci.: doi/10.1073/pnas.1102811108)  
  • Ribosomes Do More than Make Proteins – Every biology student is taught that ribosomes are complex ribozymes that are the "protein factories" of the cell. But new research published in Cell indicates that ribosomes are actually involved in regulating genes as well. Maria Barna's team at UCSF took a look at Ts, Tss and Rbt mice – strains of mice that all have the similar phenotypes of short, kinked tails and an extra rib. These defects mapped to the distal region of Chromosome 11, and after cloning this region in Ts mice, they found that the Rpl38 gene was deleted. Sequencing the region in Tss and Rbt mice showed similar problems in the Rpl38 gene (a frameshift mutation due to a single nucleotide deletion, resulting in a stop codon and a truncated, nonfunctional protein in the case of Tss mice; and a dinucleotide insertion at the Intron 2/Exon 3 splice site, causing a frameshift leading to a truncated protein in Rbt mice). Ribosomes are complexes of nucleic acid and proteins, and RPL38 is one such protein. It was immediately obvious that RPL38 – and by extension, the ribosome - was involved in proper development of the body plan, a process controlled by Hox genes. One question remained: how? Interestingly, when they looked at the expression of the Hox genes, the transcript levels were unchanged, so RPL38 does not provide transcriptional regulation. Rather, they found that a subset of Hox gene transcripts was not being translated by the ribosome in Rpl38 defective mice. In normal mice, RPL38 acts to facilitate the formation of the 80S ribosomal complex on these select Hox transcripts; in Rpl38 defective mice, this does not occur, the Hox genes are not translated, and the mice are born with gross physical abnormalities. Looks like ribosomes just got a little bit cooler.
    (Barna et al. "Ribosome-Mediated Specificity in Hox mRNA Translation and Vertebrate Tissue Patterning". Cell: doi/10.1016/j.cell.2011.03.028)
  • Fascinating Fungi FindNature this week published an article about an interesting mycological find that may have implications regarding the evolution of fungi. A team of researchers at the University of Exeter in the UK began by analyzing the genomes of microbes found in a local pond. Using the sequence data obtained from these samples, they constructed a phylogenic tree by comparing the sample data with that of known species of fungi. What they found was a set of unknown sequences that was basal to the known species. They then compared these unknown sequences to those obtained from samples collected in a large variety of environments, and discovered that the fungi were almost ubiquitous. Since they appeared to be found everywhere, but had not been previously discovered, the team named the fungi cryptomycota (or 'hidden fungi'). Intrigued, they designed fluorescently labeled DNA probes that were specific to cryptomycota DNA. This allowed them to visualize which cells in the sample belonged to their newly discovered fungi. They found that cryptomycota cells were very tiny (3-5 microns in diameter) ovoid in shape. But the truly interesting part was what they lacked: a cell wall made of chitin. A chitinous cell wall is considered the defining aspect of fungal species, so cryptomycota must represent a lineage that diverged very early on in fungal evolution.
    (Jones, M. D. M. et al. "Discovery of novel intermediate forms redefines the fungal tree of life". Nature: doi:10.1038/nature09984)  
  • Another Step Towards an HIV Vaccine – also published in Nature this week is a report by Picker et al on a novel SIV vaccine. SIV (simian immunodeficiency virus) is a very close relative to HIV that infects monkeys. The researchers administered the vaccine – which consisted of SIV-antigen expressing cassettes inserted into a vector made from an avirulent cytomegalovirus – to a group of 24 rhesus monkeys. 59 weeks after immunization, the monkeys were given the SIV virus. When they monitored the infection in the monkeys, they found that 13 of the 24 showed continually diminishing viral loads, and by 52 weeks, the virus was rarely detected at all. Undoubtedly, it remains to be seen if the vaccine will remain effecting in preventing SIV infection over longer spans of time, but this development is nonetheless a groundbreaking step towards an effective vaccine for HIV.
    (Picker et al. "Profound early control of highly pathogenic SIV by an effector memory T-cell vaccine". Nature: doi:10.1038/nature10003)

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