What we know, and still don't know, about the CRISPR-modified twins

Genomicist Devang Mehta cuts through the hype to lay out the facts

Devang Mehta

Genomics

University of Alberta

What we know:

  • Dr. Jiankiu He, a scientist in China claims to have edited the genome of two human embryos, which were then implanted and given birth to by their mother as twins, dubbed Lulu and Nana.
  • Dr. He says he edited the CCR5 gene, in order to provide the embryos with resistance to HIV infection. Jiankiu He says he did this because the father of the twins carried HIV. A version of CCR5 (CCR5-Δ32), mainly found in Northern European genomes, is known to confer immunity to certain variants of HIV. 
  • Based on Dr. He’s presentation at the 2nd International Summit on Human Gene Editing this week, one of the two embryos did not have all its cells edited, as a result it is not clear that this baby will have resistance to HIV. The other embryo has only a single-copy of CCR5 edited (humans have two copies of all genes), and the resulting edited gene is not yet known to confer resistance to HIV. It is possible that neither of the two babies will have resistance to HIV. It would certainly be unethical to test this!
  • There are other ways, such as sperm washing during IVF, to prevent HIV transmission from father to off-spring.
  • Dr. He also detected an “off-target” edit, i.e. another region of the genome that was edited by the CRISPR technology used. He suggested that this was unlikely to result in any adverse medical outcomes.
  • He’s experiment was performed in secrecy. His former employer has denied involvement in the trial. 
  • The informed consent form used by Dr. He appears to be misleading in terms of the risks involved.
  • Dr. He claims to have followed the recommendations of the US National Academies report on human gene-editing. However, his trial doesn’t seem to have followed several of these recommendations (highlighted below) and may yet ignore others. 

Restrictions on human germline editing (NASEM, 2017). Highlights showing points not met by Jiankiu He’s experiment.

  • Dr. He says he’s in the process of submitting a scientific manuscript for publication.
  • His experiment drew immediate criticism in China, with over a hundred scientists signing a letter decrying his work as unethical.

What we don’t yet know:

  • The role of He’s collaborator, Michael Deem, a professor of bioengineering at Rice University in the US.
  • There are media reports of a PR firm hired by He, but there’s no clarity about the role of this firm.
  • As of now it is still unclear which research institutions, which medical doctors, and which hospitals were involved in this project. 
  • The funding for the trial is still unclear. It appears to have been funded through He’s personal funds as well as funding from the Shenzhen Science and Technology Innovation Commission according to the clinical trial registration in China. The commission however has claimed to have never funded this project. 
  • Documents showing ethics approval from the Shenzhen HOME Women’s and Children’s Hospital appeared on social media. However the hospital seems to have lodged a complaint suggesting this form was forged. We need to learn more about the ethics and approvals pipeline followed by He. 
  • Dr. He has pledged to follow up with the health of the babies for the first 18 years of their life, however there is no information about who would be involved in this effort, nor what kind of tests this will involve, or how the results would be reported.
  • We do not yet know if the edits on the genome of the two babies will have any adverse effects. Some scientists have suggested that the method He used to screen the embryos for off-targets were insufficient. We will just have to wait and hope the babies do not suffer due to the editing. 

Jenna Sternberg

Neuroscience

Some animals use swarms to make their presence known. For example, crickets chirp in a chorus and fireflies flash in unison, catching the eye of potential mates. Such synchrony is an effort of individuals working together to create an easily identifiable beacon. Now researchers at the MIT Media Lab are asking: can the coordinated strength of a swarm could be co-opted to make shared roads safer?

The project, called [bike] swarm, uses bikes equipped with radios tuned to a small range of frequencies to communicate with nearby bikes. When bike approach each other, their lights flash in unison, making cyclists easier to identify in the dark. As bike sharing programs continue to expand, cities may be able to make cyclists and drivers safer on the road by taking advantage of this simple and adaptable system inspired by nature.

Claudia Lopez

Neuroscience

University of Pennsylvania

On September 20th, 2017, Hurricane María devastated the island of Puerto Rico. A George Washington University study following the hurricane found that the death toll reached almost 3,000 in studies following the hurricane. The catastrophe and its aftermath also had profound effects on the psychology of Puerto Rico’s youth.

New research by scientists at the Medical University of South Carolina surveyed students in the public school system five to nine months after the hurricane. Students indicated being subjected to many  stressors during the hurricane including witnessing their homes being damaged, being forced to evacuate, and having a family member, friend, or neighbor experience injury or die. Additionally, children also reported stressors associated with the aftermath of the storm, including water and food shortages and friends or family leaving the island. The study found that there was a high prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depressive symptoms in Puerto Rican students, possibly fueled by the stressors brought on by the hurricane.

Clearly, natural disasters can have traumatic effects on mental health, particularly in children. More studies should delve into how Hurricane María has affected the prevalence of mood disorders and different psychological conditions to uncover how this natural disaster may have altered the psyche of an entire generation. 

Madeline Bender

Science journalist

Two species of stickleback fish, both alike in dignity
In fair Japan, where we lay our scene
 

One was able to move to freshwater habitats, while the other couldn’t. New research out in Science implicates “jumping” genes as the cause.

These jumping genes, called transposable elements, discovered by Science Hero Barbara McClintock, make up half of our genome and up to 90% of corn’s, and they can copy and paste themselves willy-nilly into the genetic code. Randomly hopping through the genome is often harmful because it can disrupt otherwise functional genes, but this stickleback study gives us an example of the opposite occurring. 

When researchers compared the three-spined stickleback — which can survive in freshwater and marine environments — to another that can only live in marine waters, they found that one gene made all the difference. That gene, called Fads2, controls the metabolism of omega-3 fatty acids, which are abundant in marine environments but scarce in freshwater. 

Fads2, the researchers found, rode the coattails of a transposable element that jumped around the three-spined stickleback’s genome. This increased the number of copies of the useful gene and allowed the fish to make the most of the few omega-3 fatty acids in freshwater. 

Alejandra Canales

Neuroscience and Biochemistry

University of Wisconsin - Madison

Earlier this month the U.S. Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Intellectual Property held hearings regarding a bipartisan draft proposal that would eliminate the current restrictions on the eligibility of patents including those on  “abstract ideas,” “laws of nature,” or “natural phenomena." 

As of the 2013 Supreme Court decision in Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics, human genes are not patentable because they are a “product of nature,” but synthetically created DNA, also known as complementary DNA (cDNA), can be patented. At the time, the ACLU argued that that because Myriad had patented the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, the company had created a monopoly on genetic testing for breast cancer risk  screening.

But, six years is a long time in the world of genomic science. With the current explosion in direct-to-consumer DNA testing kits  offering all kinds of new risk prediction scores for different diseases, biotech companies and their patent attorneys seem to be more interested in patenting specific combinations of DNA variants associated with disease and the algorithms for arriving at such scores. How different is that really from what Myriad was doing six years ago?

Experts also say that given all the information already known about the human genome, single genes probably would not meet the novelty criteria required for patents. But as most researchers writing grants are aware of, novelty is a squishy concept, and as This American Life reported back in 2011 and 2013, the language in patents can be vague—so vague that some companies exist for the sole purpose of buying patents and suing, or threatening to sue, for millions of dollars for patent violation. How does broadening the eligibility for patents help define novelty?

This debate is ongoing, but major scientific organizations and the ACLU want to keep the ban on gene patenting in place for the good of medical patients as well as research. You can read the ACLU's letter (signed by over 100 other groups) here.

Here's why we're making a science tarot deck

It's not a typical tool for science engagement, but we think it has potential

Matteo Farinella

Neuroscience

Columbia University

You might have seen that Massive is working on a Women of Science Tarot Deck. After a successful Kickstarter campaign, I've spent most of my weekends drawing science-themed symbolic illustrations -- and I couldn’t be happier about it!

Now, some of you may ask (and have asked) “why are you mixing science and tarot? Isn’t Tarot all about magic and occult stuff?” Initially, when my friend Nadja suggested the idea, I asked myself the same question. Like most people, I associated tarot with divination. But  the tarot actually started as a playing cards deck, used since the mid-15th century in various parts of Europe. In fact, in Italy we still use the 4 tarot suits (spades, wands, coins and cups) as regular playing cards, without any magical associations. Only later, in the 18th century, people started using tarot cards for divination and magic.


tarot spread using massive's women of science tarot deck

Part of me is just really excited about updating this ancient tradition for our modern scientific culture. After all, the cards' meaning evolved throughout history and I don’t see why we shouldn’t be allowed to do it once more. But, as a science communicator, I also think this is a great opportunity to reach a whole new audience. In particular, I have been thinking a lot lately about how scientists should engage with spirituality (especially after reading this fascinating comic by Jordan Collver and watching this conversation on Stated Casually). I grew up atheist (or religious-free, as I prefer to say) and I always had a pretty aggressive attitude toward any spiritual beliefs. But I now understand the value of a more neutral/grey zone (or ‘decompression chambers’ to use Jon Perry’s beautiful metaphor). If we require people to reject their whole spiritual identity in order to even start reading about science then we are excluding a whole LOT of readers! A more inclusive science communication should provide some in-between spaces where people feel comfortable exploring science, without feeling immediately challenged or attacked.


women from science history on playing cards

I really hope that a science tarot deck can play this kind of role: a space for people who do not traditionally identify as science geeks to engage with scientific concepts in a playful and nonjudgemental way. And also, a good opportunity to challenge some stereotypes of what science "should" be and what scientists look like by celebrating the inspirational women included in the deck.

Emily Deibert

Astronomy and Astrophysics

University of Toronto

Scientists have long been interested in how the first stars were born, and in 2015 they even found a new galaxy that appeared to contain first-generation stars. But another major outstanding question in astronomy is how these first stars died. While we typically assume that these died in unimaginably powerful spherical explosions, called “supernovae,” these energetic events have been notoriously tricky to simulate — even with supercomputers at our disposal. 

Now, a team of researchers from across the USA has published results that point to an entirely different picture of these first stars’ fiery deaths. Rather than the spherical explosions astronomers have long imagined, this new observational evidence suggests that the first stars ended their lives aspherically, spewing jets of material at random directions out into space.

Their result comes from observations of a very old, bright, and metal-poor star called HE 1327−2326. This star was born out of the remnants of the first generation of stars, and so studying it can help shed light on what the lives and deaths of these first stars were like. Surprisingly, they found much more zinc — an element that is only created in the cores of massive stars — than they  expected. If the first generation of stars really did explode  spherically, most of the material shot outward during these explosions should have fallen back in to the black holes left behind. And after running 10,000 computer simulations to try to figure out where this zinc came from, the team found that this was the case: not a single simulation of a spherical explosion was able to reproduce their observations.

Apsherical explosions would allow zinc to be flung far away, while other material could have fallen in to the stellar remnant. Although the researchers aren’t sure how common these aspherical supernovae were, their results will help inform future research and shed light on other questions surrounding these mysterious first stars. 

Glaciers in the Himalayas have been melting for decades. Due to man-made climate change,  many small glaciers in and around the mountain range have already disappeared completely. A new report shows that in the last 20 years, melting has picked up speed. 

Researchers compared photographs of the Himalayas taken in the 21st century to those taken in the latter part of the 20th. Some of those older photos were only recently declassified US spy satellite pictures. Using that comparison, scientists at Columbia University and the University of Utah saw that glaciers in the region have been losing a vertical foot and a half of ice every year, twice as fast as the already rapid pace they were melting at previously. 

Since the Himalayas are such a large area, there are multiple contributing factors. One was less precipitation, which means less ice on the ground. But a big factor was the increasing consumption of fossil fuels in Asia, sending soot into the sky, where it falls to the ground and absorbs sunlight, warming the ground. Joshua Maurer, lead author on the study, said: “It looks just like what we would expect if warming were the dominant driver of ice loss." 

Madeline Bender

Science journalist

Two weeks ago, entomologist Terry McGlynn wrote a blog post about a species of ant he named after conducting field research in the  summer of 2000. These ants are common in Central America, and behaved in an unusual way, moving back and forth among different nests in their territory but only occupying one at a time. Based on this trait, nineteen years ago McGlynn proposed to the official board of insect names that the species be commonly called “gypsy ants,” using an ethnic slur for the Roma people. 

The ant in question, Aphaenogaster araneoides, still has the same name, but McGlynn wrote that he is trying to change that. He put out an open call for names to send to the common names committee, and the internet did not disappoint: wanderlust ants, ranger ants, ambu-lants, and itiner-ants were all suggested. Paleoecologist Jacquelyn Gill suggested that McGlynn find out what local indigenous people call the ant. The final choice hasn't been made, so stay tuned for the decision. I myself am cheering for itiner-ant!

The renaming of Aphaenogaster araneoides won’t affect much — the species isn’t often studied, and there is no sign that of the far more popular gypsy moth’s name changing anytime soon — but it’s a good reminder to scientists to think of the consequences of their research outside the lab or field site.  

What happens when you bring a chicken to the Andes?

Evolution can take many different courses when adapting to the same environment

Jaime Chambers

Anthropology

Washington State University

What happens when you bring a chicken to the Andes? Five hundred years later, its descendants might just be suited to mountain climbing. 

High-altitude ecosystems offer a natural lab for seeing convergent evolution do its dance: the mountains are a shared low-oxygen setting that affects every species living there. In the Andean Altiplani, the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau, and the Ethiopian Highlands, this applies to wildlife, humans, and domestic animals alike. Faced with the same physiological problem, natural selection offers up different solutions. 

According to a recent review, researchers have mapped out many roads that all lead to the same high-altitude adaptation destination. Most of the humans and domesticated animals studied had physiological adaptations to deal with hypoxia (lack of oxygen). But different genetic pathways have been modified to achieve this result, and functions such as development, chemical response, and stress have also undergone selection. Concentration of hemoglobin, the transporter of oxygen in the blood, illustrates this: people living in the Andes show elevated levels in general, while Tibetan humans and Tibetan mastiffs do not show increased  hemoglobin levels until they are over 4000 m. 

A map of all the evolutionary connections shows 15 different gene variants that assist in high-altitude living. The gene EPAS1 is shared between geographically separated populations, such as Tibetan cashmere goats and feral Andean horses. In some cases, it has been inherited through interspecies breeding:  Denisovans to Tibetan humans, Tibetan wolves to Tibetan mastiffs.  

Domesticated animals offer snapshots of selection in motion. Chickens introduced to the Andes less than 500 years ago already show signs of adaptation, via stronger bonding of oxygen to their hemoglobin carriers. High-altitude Ethiopian cattle thrive with  oxygen saturation levels of 68%, while lowland breeds die from anything below 80%. This synthesis of the research highlights that natural selection does not always shape the same solution for a single problem, and highlights the diversity of adaptations to high altitude environments across the animal kingdom. 

It's time to cancel the "manel"

All-male panels don't just lack diversity: they're actively counter-productive to diversifying STEM communities

Olivia Box

Natural Resources and Forest Ecology

University of Vermont

This past Wednesday, Francis S. Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), announced that he will no longer participate in "manels," or speaking panels with only male participants. 

Dr. Collins also issued a challenge the rest of his field to do the same, writing "the diversity of bright and talented minds engaged in biomedical research has come a long way – and our public engagements need to catch up." This high-profile announcement brings issues of inclusion to center stage, ideally making these “manels” a thing of the past.

Dr. Collins' decision is supported by recent research measuring women’s success rates in the sciences. A September 2018 study from the National Bureau of Economic Research suggested that women in PhD programs are more likely to finish their degree when they have female peers.

While he focused on his own field of biomedical research, this public action has been a call to scientists everywhere. In a story on the announcement by the New York Times, other scientists applauded Dr. Collins and vowed to do the same. And Dr. Jeremy Farrar, director of global health nonprofit The Wellcome Trust, tweeted that his organization plans to follow Dr. Collin’s pledge as well.

Groups like 500 Women Scientists have been working for years to create more inclusive and supportive environments that empower women in STEM. Started by four female scientists, they provide various resources, including a guide to organizing inclusive science meetings, to help anyone make their own community or institution more inclusive.

As a woman in a male-dominated field (forest ecology), I felt validated seeing this announcement covered extensively after it was made. I hope to see more organizations follow suit, use this pledge as a template, and more publicly support the work and accomplishments of under-represented minorities in their fields.

Kelsey Lloyd

Neuroscience and Nutrition

University of Cincinnati

We know that obesity is bad for the brain. Obese people tend to have inflammation in their brains, which can lead to decreased cognitive function and increased risk of developing disorders such as dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. What we don’t yet know is the exact mechanism of how obesity causes these cognitive impairments. 

We do know bits and pieces, like that obesity causes the loss of synapses, which are the connections between brain cells. Synapse loss is a normal developmental process and when a synapse is no longer needed it is destroyed up by microglia, the immune cells of the brain. Obesity is also known to increase the activity of microglia. This leads to the question, which way does this relationship go? Does obesity increase the rate of synapse loss, causing microglia to increase their activity to keep up, or does obesity put microglia into overdrive and cause them to destroy needed synapses?

To answer this question, researchers from Princeton University compared the mental functioning of obese and lean mice. As expected based on the previous research I outlined above, obese mice had impaired learning and memory compared to lean mice, as well as fewer synapses and more microglia. When the researchers then reduced the number or activity of microglia, they prevented both the learning deficits and the synapse loss in obese mice. Reducing the activity of microglia caused no changes in the lean mice (probably because their microglia weren’t very active to begin with). These results suggest that overactive microglia destroying needed synapses was the cause of the obesity related learning impairments. 

This study provides the first experimental evidence that microglia are not just bystanders, but play an active role in obesity-related cognitive impairment. This suggests that someday, we could use drugs that target microglia in order to treat cognitive impairment in obese human patients.  

Fecal transplants are all the rage these days. The FDA just announced that two patients who received a fecal transplant from the same donor got sick, and one died. They contracted antibiotic resistant E. coli from their donation. Both were immunocompromised (they had no functional immune system) before their received the transplant. The transplant hadn't been tested for this type of bacteria beforehand. 

Alyssa Shepard

Cancer Biology

The Scripps Research Institute

We might be one step closer to a real-life Spider-Man (or woman)!  Researchers at University of Maryland, Baltimore County, have  successfully sequenced two genes involved in making "spider glue" – the sticky silk-like substance that coats spider webs and holds prey hostage. These genes, called AgSp1 and AgSp2, were identified through a combination of RNA and genomic DNA sequencing, providing an excellent example of how advancements in biotechnology can assist in the discovery of potential new biomaterials. 

Although AgSp1 and AgSp2 are only two of a variety of silk genes that spiders can produce, these two genes alone are enough to begin working on glues directly derived from spider biology. The successful sequencing of this natural product has no doubt  pushed us closer to the next big advance in biomaterials. I expect “Spider Glue” – inspired by the real thing – to soon be on sale at a  retailer near you! One disclaimer: it probably won't be strong enough to catch any criminals.

Madison Hansen

Computational Biology

American Museum of Natural History

Millions of people all over the world are searching for their romantic partners online, using dating apps. To find a match, dating apps use algorithms to fish through hundreds of profiles so you don’t have to. But, like all algorithms, they aren’t perfect. Here to expose the pitfalls of online dating is MonsterMatch.

In MonsterMatch, you design a monster and their dating profile. Then the simulated dating app experience begins, in which you can swipe left or right and “message” with other monsters. Just like real dating apps, MonsterMatch uses an algorithm called collaborative filtering to decide which profiles to show. Collaborative filtering works by taking your data - a left or right swipe - and matching it to data from previous users. The app will  then show you another profile that was popular with people whose swipes agreed with yours. 

The problem with collaborative filtering is that it is heavily influenced by the first users. In the game MonsterMatch, this algorithm assumes that you like and dislike the same monsters as some of the early players. The monsters it shows you will start to be very similar to each other - a selection from the most popular monsters chosen by previous players.

In dating apps, the algorithm assumes you like and dislike the same people as previous users. Your first swipes can effectively pigeonhole you into a clique of users. If the clique says “No, we don’t like this profile,” then you will never be shown that profile. The clique filters which profiles you see, and therefore which people you date. This seems rather restrictive, given that dating is a tricky science

So the next time you open that dating app, consider how collaborative filtering influences whose profiles you view. To maximize your dating app success, notice when the profiles you are being shown lack variety - the collaborative filtering algorithm may have pigeonholed you. Try to reintroduce variety into your online dating search by experimenting with other available app features.  

You can play MonsterMatch here. In just a few minutes of swiping, you will discover the patterns, biases, and pitfalls of collaborative filtering for yourself.  

Olivia Box

Natural Resources and Forest Ecology

University of Vermont

I’m conducting fieldwork in a state park when a perfume-like smell fills the air. I instantly recognize the soft white petals, reminiscent of the roses that belong on prom corsages. As much as I shouldn’t, I find myself enamored with Rosa multiflora, a plant that goes by the common name of multiflora rose. 

Despite its charm – or rather, because of it – this rose is a highly invasive plant. As a forest ecologist studying forests post-disturbance, I often shake my head when I see invasive plants planted in garden beds or used in wreaths. But in the field, it can be hard to not love a rose amidst the tangles of poison ivy.

lionfish tinted purple

Lionfish are another highly invasive species

David Clode / Unsplash

The stark presence of the rose in the forest reminds me why this process happens, and the dangers associated with invasive plants particularly for forest health. In our global society, plants are  constantly being traveling around the world through trade and as  stowaways on shipping pallets, boats, and even on hiking boots.

In a forest, native plants are subjected to increased competition from invasive plants that often results in diminished biodiversity and forest cover. Invasives are a huge economic burden to homeowners and the subject of many state and government programs. Climate change is also predicted to increase the range and threat of many invasive species.

Many state parks and conservation groups host removal days or invasive initiatives and there are sources online to determine what species threaten your neighborhood. Learning what belongs – and what doesn’t—in your backyard is the first step to protecting forested ecosystems.
 

Katherine Basil

Neuroscience

Maastricht University

In a paper published in the journal Neuron this month, neuroethicists outline four ways that neurotechnology companies marketing wearable brain devices to consumers claim that their products positively enhance users' cognitive abilities and overall individual well-being. 

Despite these promising claims, to date there has been very little research into the effectiveness, benefit, and safety of similar direct-to-consumer brain devices. This is particularly concerning since individuals might resort to these wearable neurotechnologies instead of seeking necessary medical care. This is even more problematic in the case of children, where we are not able to predict the effects of those devices on their brain development. What can be done?

The authors suggest that these companies should highlight the negative side-effects of the marketed brain devices in a more ethical and sensitive way. One way to achieve this could be through the addition of a warning label communicating the potential side-effects as well as the fact that there could be other unforeseen negative health consequences to the purchaser. And when it comes to data privacy? We should definitely start asking those questions. 

Coleman Harris

Biostatistics

Vanderbilt University

Carbon capture is often suggested as a necessary solution to prevent  impending climate disasters. But, what exactly is carbon capture, and how does it work?

Carbon capture is a distinct part of a larger process known as carbon capture and storage. This process includes literally capturing the carbon dioxide as it is created in power plants or other industrial activities. Then it is transported by pipeline or ship for storage underground in places like former oil fields. 

Nature's carbon capture and storage method

 Photo by Casey Horner on Unsplash 

The Center for Climate and Energy Solutions notes that the carbon capture and storage process is a practical and productive method of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, achieving 14 percent of the world's emission reduction targets by 2050. Captured carbon can even be used in fuel manufacturing and oil recovery, making these industries a bit cleaner. 

In our current timeline, where the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has already released a special report on Global Warming of 1.5º C, I would argue that carbon capture solutions are a necessary solution to driving down rising global emissions that threaten daily life.

Axios has just published an immensely helpful illustration of the ways carbon can be captured, from trees and soil to highly-touted technological solutions. Check it out while enjoying a cold beer brewed with recaptured carbon!

Alana Wilcox

Conservation Biology

University of Guelph

Every year monarch butterflies in southern Canada and the north-central United States travel over 4,000 kilometers (2,485 miles) southward. Triggered by cool weather and the slow death of their host plant, milkweed, monarchs make their long journeys to the oyamel fir forest in Mexico. However, this stunning migration is at risk. The population of monarchs in California alone has declined by 86% between 2017 and 2018. 

Monarch butterflies face a wide range of threats including bad weather, climate change, and exposure to chemicals and contaminants, as well as the dual dangers of predation and pathogens. Deforestation in Mexico where the butterflies overwinter and the loss of breeding habitat and milkweed on the northern breeding range also pose significant risk at different stages in the monarch life cycle. Despite mounds of research in each of these areas, it turns out that we still don’t fully understand the contribution of each to monarch declines.

To answer this question, my colleagues and I examined 115 peer-reviewed papers, classifying them by the type of risk and whether  the potential threat currently had a positive or negative effect on  monarch butterflies. Using papers with multi-year datasets or results from predictive models, we also assessed whether each threat is thought to pose a continued risk to the population (as opposed to a one-time problem). We found that poor environmental conditions and loss of habitat in Mexico and on the northern breeding grounds are the most severe threats to monarch butterflies.  With this in mind, researchers can design studies and conservation interventions that that directly address these threats to reduce the decline of this charismatic species.  

Sarah Laframboise

Biochemistry

University of Ottawa

All Caster Semenya wanted was to “run free” in the body she was born with. As a two-time Olympic Champion, she is a dominant force in the international athletics scene, specifically in the 800m race. Last month, the Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled in favor of a movement put forward by the International Association of Athletics Foundation (IAAF). This movement banned Semenya, and others with natural conditions, such as the hyperandrogegism Semenya has, which lead to high levels of testosterone. If they wanted to continue to compete in international competition, then she would have to take testosterone-suppressive drugs to lower her natural levels of testosterone to level deemed “normal” for female athletes. 

A second appeal to the Swiss Supreme Court has finally lifted this ban after what seems like a nightmare year for Semenya and other afflicted athletes. Although this is a temporary action, the lift will remain in place until Semenya’s case can be fully evaluated by the Supreme Court. This could take a year or more to evaluated and gives these athletes a second chance to race! 

This is certainly a step in the right direction. However, Semenya’s fight is not over. She will have to defend her case once again and be subjected to intensive questioning and demanding court appearances. The implications of this ruling impact our cultural understanding of gender, sex, and sport. It is crucial that we understand these concepts and fight for true equality. Most importantly, Semenya is back in competition in the body she was born to run in.  

Alana Wilcox

Conservation Biology

University of Guelph

After spending the first few years of life in fresh water, young  Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar) undergo a complex series of physiological changes that allows them to better withstand the high concentration of salts as they migrate to seawater. Young salmon tolerate the salts in the environment through the development of cells, called ionocytes, that secrete sodium and chloride and a specialized enzyme that acts as a pump to transport these electrolytes.

Landlocked salmon, on the other hand, remain in freshwater and it is unknown if, over time, this has resulted in physiological differences compared to salmon that migrate between freshwater and seawater over their lifecycle (anadromous). So, Dr. Stephen McCormick of the US Geological Survey led a team to investigate if there was a difference in expression of the enzymes responsible for salt transport, as well as the underlying hormonal regulation, between the two types of fish.

McCormick and his team brought salmon into the laboratory to monitor their responses to controlled changes in the environment. They found that levels of an enzyme that allows the fish to live in salty environments and the hormones responsible for regulating seawater acclimation, like cortisol and growth hormone, were higher in anadromous salmon than landlocked fish. These findings shed light on the complex physiological changes that occur during sea-going salmon development as well as how these salmon populations have evolved over the last 14,000 years. 

Okay "all the way across the sky" really means they got 5.2 million kilometers away at their closest. But still, double asteroids!!! Look at 'em. The International Asteroid Warning Network (IAWN) and the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope (VLT, actual name) spotted Asteroid 1999 KW4 in late May. Here's a NASA .gif of the asteroid, which has two parts (making it a "binary" asteroid). Alpha is the bigger one, the "primary" body, and Beta, the smaller one, is the secondary body but is also sometimes adorably called a "moonlet."

(NASA/JPL)

Although 1999 KW4 isn't a threat, since the closest it came to Earth is 15 times further away than the Moon is, it's being treated as a kind of rehearsal for observing other potentially dangerous objects. 1999 KW4 is also reminiscent of Didymos, another binary asteroid (its moonlet is called Didymoon). NASA will be attempting to deflect Didymoon in 2022, to see if changing an asteroid's course is possible. I'm already working on my screenplay.

Jaime Chambers

Anthropology

Washington State University

Where ever humans have gone, so have dogs – a mutualistic relationship that has left co-evolutionary traces in their brains, behavior, and bodies. However, despite dogs’ ubiquity in human societies, keeping dogs is not a universal trait among individuals. Is the predilection for canine company purely an acquired taste, or might dog-keeping also be written in the genes? 

According to a recent study, maybe there's something in your chromosomes. Genes wield significant influence over whether someone is a “dog person,” with over half of variation in dog ownership explainable by heredity (which means the other half of explaining why someone does or does not have dogs is explained by something else). 

The authors relied on powerful data sets to analyze dog ownership in 35,035 twin pairs:  the Swedish Twin Registry (the largest twin cohort database in the world) and dog registration records from the Swedish Board of Agriculture and Swedish Kennel club (estimated to account for 83% of the country’s dogs, due to national laws requiring their registration).

This study is the first to suggest that dog ownership has a notable genetic component, heritable by 57% for females and 51% for males. Identical twins were found to be more likely to own dogs than non-identical twins – offering evidence that genetic factors play a role in that choice, since identical twins share their entire genome and non-identical twins share only half. 

To be clear, this is pure correlation. No responsible “dog owning” gene has been isolated, but these findings tap into the biggest questions surrounding domestication: not just how, but why, did it happen? A genetic component offers new pathways for probing these layers. 

Jenna Sternberg

Neuroscience

Sea wasp, marine stinger, common kingslayer. The nicknames for the various species of box jellyfish's stem from this animal's reputation as one of the most dangerous creatures in the sea. These jellies, which are in the class Cubozoa, cause agonizing pain when they eject their venom and can even kill humans.

sign about jellyfish stings

A group of Australian researchers from the University of Sydney, led by Dr. Man Tat-Lau recently identified a potential antidote to box jellyfish stings. They used genetic editing tool CRISPR to knock out over 19,000 genes one by one in human  cells. Box jellyfish venom normally kills cells, so the researchers wanted to see whether any of these modified cells could survive after exposure. Two genes required for the venom to inflict such intense pain jumped out at them.

One of these genes directs production of cholesterol. The researchers performed experiments to tell whether drugs that reduce cholesterol signaling could serve as an antidote to venom poisoning. Treatment led to less cell death in human cells, and mice showed reduced symptoms of pain.

With this antidote, victims of a box jellyfish sting may one day only need to apply a drug to treat their pain. Understanding how the venom acts on cells will also provide a starting point for studying pain pathways and using venom components to develop new medicines. 

Brittney Borowiec

Environmental Physiology

McMaster University

The Dallol geothermal area (14°14′21″N; 40°17′55″E) in Ethiopia is hell on Earth. The boiling water of the hot spring is three times saltier than the ocean, contaminated with heavy metals, and has a pH of zero. It’s ten times more acidic than battery acid.

And yet, something lives here according to a new study in Scientific Reports.

Curious about the limits of life on Earth, a team of researchers put some salt-encrusted rocks around the hot springs through a filter and tried to extract some DNA. They got a hit - the DNA was very similar to a group of organisms called Nanohaloarchaea, some of which live in high salt environments. 

What did these mysterious Nanohaloarchaea look like? The team put their samples under some very powerful microscopes to find out. 

Pill-shaped micro-organisms within a network of thin, needle-like crystals

Pill-shaped micro-organisms within a network of thin, needle-like crystals. Notice how the crystals have grown around and encapsulated the microorganisms.

Gomez et al. in Scientific Reports

Now that we know that they’re here, I can’t wait for someone to figure out exactly how these ultra-small microorganisms survive, and what they mean for the ecology and geochemical cycling of these hot springs.

The authors suggest this has implications for finding life on Mars. It doesn’t seem so far-fetched. 

Alison Koontz

Neurobiology

Caltech

With current extinction rates 1000 times higher than natural background extinction rates, our planet is heading towards a biodiversity crisis similar to that which occurred after the disappearance of the dinosaurs and over 75 percent of the known species on the entire planet. The only way for animal populations to survive this death sentence is to be best suited for their environment in a way that ensures not only their survival, but the preferential survival of their offspring as well. Biologists refer to this as "fitness."

A new study from the University of Southampton challenges what we think of when we hear fitness. The researchers predicted that  over the the next century, the body masses of animals will decrease as natural selection favors smaller birds and mammals. This specifically applies to animals that can live in multiple habitats and are extremely fertile, like rabbits and songbirds. In fact, the overall body mass of animals is predicted to decrease by 25 percent before 2219. This is bad news for large animals and species that occupy very specific niches, which includes keystone species such as sea otters and wolves. These are called keystone species because they play a critical role in shaping and maintaining their ecosystems. 

Birds and other fast-reproducing organisms are predicted to shrink over the next 100 years

Laura Wolf / Flickr

Unsurprisingly, the cause of this downsizing is humankind - specifically our continuous impact on our planet through climate change, habitat destruction, and hunting and farming. However, there is a point of hope. If conservation actions can be taken to protect those keystone species that we know are threatened, we can perhaps reverse the short-term death sentence and prolong these important ecosystems. 

This is not a new message. However, the range of threats that species face - and the myriad forms they take - make swift action an urgent necessity.

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