The week’s most astounding developments from the neobiological frontier.

January 11, 2024

Fingerprints are not as unique as long believed

When a criminal suspect is arrested, police routinely take fingerprints of their thumbs and all eight fingers. Investigators do this because there’s a longstanding belief in the field of forensics that holds that just as fingerprints between any two people are unique, the prints from any two fingers on one person’s hand are also unique and unmatchable. Thus if you leave your thumb print at one crime scene and a print of your index finger at another, there was thought to be no way of knowing the same person committed both crimes. Turns out that’s not the case. The ridges and whorls of any two fingerprints from a single person are not as unique as we thought, according to researchers at Columbia University. Using an AI trained on a government database of some 60,000 fingerprints, they showed we simply are not looking at the right part of the fingerprint—work they claim could “increase forensic investigation efficiency by almost two orders of magnitude.” Press release

Saliency map highlights areas that contribute to the similarity between the two fingerprints from the same person. Gabe Guo/Columbia Engineering

Want to improve wellbeing on the job? Start with the workplace, not the worker.

Half of all companies in the United Kingdom have a formal, written “wellbeing strategy” for their workers, offering things like employee assistance programs, wellness apps, counseling, meditation rooms, and training in stress management, meditation, or mindfulness. But how effective are these interventions? A new study from the Wellbeing Research Center at the University of Oxford calls that into question. Based on survey data from 46,336 workers at 233 U.K. organizations, it finds little evidence supporting any benefit and “even some small indication of harm.” That may be due to how these formal strategies are conceived—they are based on interventions targeting individual workers, to presumably help them become the best versions of themselves. More effective may be strategies aimed at increasing wellbeing by improving the workplace. “Organizational interventions, such as changes to scheduling, management practices, staff resources, performance review, or job design appear more beneficial for improving wellbeing,” the study concludes. Industrial Relations Journal

“Startling” secret of multiple sclerosis sucked from Bronze-Age bones

Some 175 researchers around the world, led by the University of Cambridge, University of Bristol, University of Copenhagen, Oxford University, and the University of California, Berkeley, have done a deep dive into the DNA of 5,000 people who lived in Western Europe and Asia thousands of years ago. Recovering DNA from the teeth and skeletal remains of these long-dead individuals allowed them to create what they call the world’s largest ancient human gene data bank. It has revealed how genes and diseases spread over time and provides new insight into debilitating diseases like multiple sclerosis (MS). MS rates are higher in Europe, they write, because carrying the genes that predisposed early Europeans to MS also protected them from infectious diseases their herds of sheep and cows carried. The work traces back the genes known to increase risk of Alzheimer’s and type 2 diabetes to their DNA roots among hunter-gatherers, and it also explains why Northern Europeans tend to be taller today than Southern Europeans. Nature

Cry me a Petri dish

Anybody who’s ever worked long hours in a biomedical research lab will be no stranger to the frustration and crying over one’s tissue culture. But for the first time in history, researchers at the Hubrecht Institute and University Medical Center Utrecht in the Netherlands have managed to get their tissue culture to cry for them. Describing their first organoid model of the conjunctiva, the thin tissue that covers the whites of the eye and coats the inside of the eyelids, the scientists say the cells in a dish mimic the function of actual human tissue, containing active mucus-producing goblet cells and the water-producing keratinocytes responsible for tears. A new tool for research and drug discovery, the organoid has already yielded an unexpected discovery, implicating something called a tuft cell in the eyes of people suffering allergies. Normally found in the lining of the gut and inside the epithelial lung airways, it now appears that these cells play a role in mediating tearing responses to allergies. Cell Stem Cell

An organoid model of the human conjunctiva shows that under allergy-like conditions, the number of mucus-producing cells increases. Marie Bannier-Hélaouët/Hubrecht Institute

AI could improve the success of IVF

The success of live birth following in vitro fertilization is unsatisfactorily low (an overall birth rate of only 20–40 percent for women under 40 following a single round of IVF), and most women have to undergo multiple expensive rounds of IVF in order to give birth. One of the key issues is viability. For any two individual embryos grown in the lab, one could successfully implant to the wall of the mother’s uterus while the other could not. But doctors have no ability to predict which ones will take—and that’s exactly why doctors often implant multiple embryos in a single round of IVF. But now researchers at the University of California, San Diego, have discovered a way to potentially improve these success rates. By using machine learning trained on measurements of thousands of different molecular biomarkers known as exRNA that the embryos release inside the test tube, the researchers could predict which embryos were developmentally arrested and therefore nonviable. Cell Genomics

Personalized medicine gets a new skin

Researchers at the Guangdong Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Shantou, China, the University of Tokyo, and the China University of Petroleum in Beijing have developed a skin-like gel that can be pasted to a person’s skin and worn continuously for more than a week. The technology will boost the ability of doctors to monitor health biometrics continuously for disease prevention, screening, diagnosis, and treatment, according to the researchers. It represents, “an important step toward noninvasive personalized health care,” they write. Science Advances

A photo of the 10-micron-thick hydrogel designed for long-term, continuous monitoring of electrophysiological data while attached to human skin. CC-BY-NC

Potential new way to improve cancer therapy

Neutrophils are one of the most abundant immune cells in your body, and they make up some 50–80 percent of all your white blood cells in circulation. They play critical roles in innate immunity, part of your body’s first line of defense against pathogens, but neutrophils can also play a harmful role in cancer by helping tumors grow. Oncologists have observed that the more these cells persistently move into tumors, the worse clinical outcomes people have. Now researchers at the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) in Singapore and Renji Hospital-Shanghai Jiao Tong University in Shanghai have shown how this works. Once inside tumors, neutrophils become reprogrammed and undergo specific, irreversible changes that cause them to promote tumor growth. “Targeting this program may provide a means of enhancing certain cancer immunotherapies,” they write. Science

Could the bacteria that cause pimples be engineered to cure acne instead?

One of the banes of teenagers everywhere is the commensal skin bacterium Cutibacterium acnes. This organism is the most common bacteria found on the human skin, and it’s also the #1 cause of pimples. Now researchers at Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona have genetically modified C. acnes cells to produce therapeutic molecules for treating acne and tested the concept in mice. Though the approach still needs to prove safe and effective in human studies, the researchers envision modified forms of C. acnes could be engineered to improve skin for people who suffer from acne, and they say the same bacteria could be modified to secrete other therapeutic molecules to treat additional conditions, including eczema and dry skin. Nature Biotechnology