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

January 25, 2024

CAR T shows promise for aging—in mice

In the last decade, researchers have successfully garnered FDA approval for using engineered human chimeric antigen receptor T cells (more commonly known as “CAR T cells”) to target and treat cancer. Now researchers at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York have suggested that CAR T cells could be similarly designed to slow human aging. In mouse experiments, they showed that CAR T cells could be modified to target senescent cells, sometimes called zombie cells, which are implicated in a number of age-related diseases. The problem with senescent cells is that they resist dying. They play crucial roles in the earliest stages of embryonic development and in wound repair throughout life, but they accumulate in our tissues as we age, which causes undue inflammation and drives metabolic diseases. “If we give [CAR T treatment] to aged mice, they rejuvenate. If we give it to young mice, they age slower,” the researchers said in a statement to the press. “No other therapy right now can do this.” Nature Aging

The dark roast genome of coffee

Most coffee grown in the world comes from arabica beans, which are celebrated for their flavor and account for some 60 percent of global production. But the arabica species is derived from another type of coffee called robusta (the second most common cultivar), which was long ago crossed with another more ancient species known as Coffea eugenioides. That pairing created not just a superior-tasting bean but a genetic conundrum. Coffea arabica has a large and complex genome, which has only partially been sequenced to date. That has made studying and breeding it difficult. Now researchers at the Institute for Applied Genomics and the University of Udine in (where else!) Italy have cracked the coffee code and assembled a complete genome for arabica coffee—something they say could allow for the creation of new disease resistant and more flavorful varieties. Java lovers everywhere, rejoice. Nature Communications

Healthy robusta coffee cherries, Indonesia. Armin Hari/World Coffee Research

Autism and complications of childbirth

Looking at the medical records and childbirth experiences of 87,687 expecting mothers from 2011–2014 in the Japan Environmental Children’s Study, doctors at the National Center for Global Health and Medicine in Tokyo have discovered that women with autism could be at increased risk of adverse outcomes at the end of their pregnancies. This was particularly true for women with a “high level of autistic traits,” they reported this week. They were more likely to have preterm births, very preterm births, and children born with a condition known as “small for gestational age.” The study highlights the need for tailored and timely care to support these women, the doctors write. JAMA Network Open

Directed evolution: brighter, stronger, faster

Researchers at the University of Cambridge have created a synthetic new form of the common bacteria Escherichia coli capable of undergoing hyper-fast evolution, increasing the mutation rate of specific, designated DNA stretches by 2–4 orders of magnitude. Since E. coli is perhaps the most common bacterial system used in biomedical research, this promises to be a boon for discovery. In two proof-of-principle demonstrations, the scientists showed they could accelerate evolution in the bacteria and engineer it to evolve a 150-fold increase in resistance to the antibiotic tigecycline in 12 days. (Incorporating antibiotic resistance is a typical approach to using bacteria in the laboratory because it gives an easy way to ensure that only your bacterium will grow in the flask or Petri dish). They also engineered another strain that expressed green fluorescent protein (GFP), evolving it to produce a 1,000-fold increase in fluorescence in five days. Science

The neurobiology of soothing

A typical response that humans and other mammals make when they see another in pain is to try to comfort them. Such empathy is probably an evolutionary advantage because it promotes social cohesion and survival within a group. But the underlying neural mechanism behind this desire to respond to others in need has always been mysterious. Now researchers at UCLA have traced “social licking,” a form of comforting behavior in mice to a region of the brain known as the anterior cingulate cortex. When a mouse sees another suffering from physical pain, they perceive their pain thanks to this brain region, and it directs their response. They gently lick the other mouse around their injury, helping their murine friend cope. “These insights could aid the development of interventions that promote context-appropriate prosocial behavior in health and disease,” the researchers write. Nature

Seeing the world the way a bird sees it

Finally, we depart ever so briefly from our normal focus on human biology because this technology is just plain cool. We know from comparative physiology that various animals have different combinations of photoreceptors sensitive to an expanded spectral range of light, allowing them to see longer infrared or shorter ultraviolet wavelengths than humans. Now researchers at the University of Sussex in England and George Mason University in Virginia have developed a camera and software package that allows them to capture video in the alternative colors and spectra that birds and other animals see. The new technology could be useful for ecology, helping conservationists better understand how animals see their environments—or for filmmakers who want audiences to see the world as birds or quadrupeds do. PLOS Biology

A new camera and software package enables scenes to be captured and displayed as animals see them, such as these three males Colias eurytheme, orange sulphur butterflies—shown as they appear to birds. Daniel Hanley CC-BY-4.0