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

January 20, 2022

Critical mechanism of aging uncovered: Ribosomal pausing

One of the fickle foes of longevity is apparently the clunky sputtering, late in life, of the ubiquitous molecular machines known as ribosomes. According to research at Stanford University examining how cells age in the lowly worm Caenorhabditis elegans and the common winemaker’s yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae, an important mechanism of aging may be when old cells suffer “ribosomal pausing,” a stuttering halt of those molecular machines, which are found in all living cells and are responsible for translating genetic transcripts into proteins. Once ribosomes are paused, they likely create problems in this basic process like the production of truncated proteins and their misfolding and aggregation. The researchers say ribosome pausing could be a critical driver of “proteostatic collapse,” a hallmark of aging and marker of those age-related neurodegenerative diseases where protein levels increase inside cells. Nature

A fast new commercial machine for sorting cells

Researchers at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in Heidelberg, Germany, and the San Jose, California-based company BD Biosciences have developed an image-enabled cell sorting device that uses fluorescence imaging on flowing cells and is capable of sorting 15,000 cells per second. They say the instrument can be operated in non specialized laboratories and will enable basic biomedical research projects, like high-throughput genomic screening and developing cell atlases of tissues. It provides “a fundamentally new capability for probing deep into the molecular mechanisms underlying cell physiology and protein localization,” they write. Science

Schematic of image-enabled cell sorting, developed at BD Biosciences and road tested by EMBL. Daniel Schraivogel, adapted from Schraivogel et al. Science 2022

Coming soon: A robot controlled by a nurse in a bodysuit

It’s not exactly one of the ultra-realistic, fully autonomous “skin job” synthetic robots seen in the movie Blade Runner, but in our modern pandemic era, the skintight suit that doubles as an electronic human-machine interface may be the next best thing. Developed by scientists at the City University of Hong Kong and Dalian University of Technology in China, the technology will enable the creation of form-fitting, electronically integrated, Bluetooth, wifi, and internet-enabled whole-body suits to be worn by nurses that will allow them to collect vital signs and bodily fluids and tend to infectious disease patients remotely. It allows full-body motion capture for wirelessly controlling a robot while giving users rich haptic feedback via VR. Science Advances

A video game to improve your reading skills

Scoring a point for video game makers and the kids who want to play them, researchers at the University of Geneva in Switzerland and the University of Trento in Italy have gamified a set of standard clinical cognitive training exercises into an experimental action-based video game called Skies of Manawak, and in a study involving 151 children reading at a typical level, they showed that it could improve reading ability as well as attentional control and planning skills. They also demonstrated the improvements were maintained in a follow-up test conducted six months later. This follows on the heels of the FDA approval for the Akili Interactive video game for kids with ADHD. Nature Human Behavior

Large study shows maternal eating disorders increase ADHD/autism risk

Conducting a massive study involving 52,878 children born from 1990–2012, doctors at the Karolinska University Hospital in Stockholm, Sweden, found higher risks for developing attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and autism in children whose mothers previously had eating disorders, and this was especially true for children whose mothers suffered ongoing eating disorders during pregnancy. Although the specific mechanisms contributing to this risk are unclear, it could be related to nutritional factors in the intrauterine environment that influence neurodevelopment and maturation. The doctors say the work highlights the need for clinical awareness among obstetricians of eating disorders in their patients—so they can provide them with intensified support as needed. JAMA Network Open

Driving while stoned? Here comes a brain-based breathalyzer.

Intoxication from THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, has been associated with impaired cognitive and psychomotor skills and increased risk for motor vehicle and workplace accidents. But THC impairment doesn’t correlate with THC concentration in the body, so scientists have struggled to develop a way to measure active impairment. Now a Harvard University team has adapted a brain imaging technique called functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS). In a double blind, randomized study, 169 people underwent fNIRS imaging before and after orally consuming either THC or a placebo. The results show a visible change in people who were stoned: They had increased levels of oxygenated hemoglobin protein in their prefrontal cortices. This allowed them to accurately identify THC intoxication three-quarters of the time, which is slightly more accurate than a standard field sobriety test. Neuropsychopharmacology

Swapping spit reveals closeness to infants and children

When children and infants see people share straws, kiss on the face, or otherwise swap spit, they intuit a close or “thick” relationship between those people, according to a series of clever and bizarre experiments by researchers at Harvard, MIT, and Newcastle University in England. Using comic strips, puppets, and human performers, the researchers showed that infants use saliva sharing to inform their earliest understanding of family structure and small children see it as proof of close relationships within their social environment—a phenomenon they call “intuitive sociology.” In one experiment they tested 113 five- to seven-year-olds, asking them to predict based on a comic strip whether a girl drinking a juice box is more likely to share her straw with a friend or with her own sister. Other experiments acted out similar scenarios with puppets and actors for toddlers and infants. Science

Wild panda poop shows seasonal role of microbiome

Giant pandas are an evolutionary oddball because they are descended from carnivorous bears but eat exclusively low-fat bamboo in the wild, chewing the lean, tender shoots in the spring and summer and chomping on the even-less-fatty longer leaves for the rest of the year. But this presents a problem for the animal, whose digestive tract is short and adapted for meat—as is typical with any other “real” carnivore. According to researchers at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, pandas solve this problem through a unique seasonal microbiome plasticity, where their guts become enriched with organisms that increase lipid production and fat storage during the shoot-eating months. The scientists showed that mice transplanted with fecal samples from the guts of pandas during the shoot-eating season grew faster and stored more fat. The work is significant, the authors say, because it demonstrates the seasonal role played by the gut microbiome in maintaining physiological health and fitness, at least in one mammal—and a cute one at that. Cell Reports